Spend Generation

I’m 31 and make $130,000 per year. I could buy a house tomorrow if I wanted. I don’t. I’d rather travel, drink expensive wine and eat at the best restaurants. And I’m not alone

The night before my 30th birthday, my brother called me. “We’re going away for the weekend,” he said. “Get out of work.” I knew my boss was going to kill me, but I’ve always had trouble saying no to my brother. He’s two years my senior, and I look up to him. He told me that he and three of our friends were taking me to Montreal. It wasn’t as far-flung as some of our other weekend getaways—Miami, Las Vegas, New York—but I knew this one would be wild. We sipped complimentary glasses of wine on the flight and then settled into a penthouse suite at Le Place D’Armes Hotel, which cost $640 a night. We hit Joe Beef and tried the horse with artichokes and pecorino, plus just about everything else on the menu—a habit of ours when we can’t decide what not to get. Around 1 a.m., we rolled into New City Gas, a warehouse nightclub just outside the Old Port, totally obliterated. My cousin had booked us a booth, and we ordered bottle service—the Grey Goose, Hendricks, Patrón and Moët were flowing. We stayed until nearly 6 a.m., dancing to house music and trying to pick up girls (alas, none of us got lucky). We gorged and guzzled our way through the rest of the weekend, eating ridiculously decadent cronuts from a pâtisserie, smoked meat sandwiches from Schwartz’s, fondue from an amazing Old Montreal restaurant called Bistro Marché de la Villette. We uncorked bottle after bottle of Amarone as we went. The pinnacle of the weekend was two hours on a closed racetrack behind the wheel of a $200,000 dark blue Lamborghini Gallardo. I tried to redline it—it tops out around 310 kilometres per hour—but the rental guy talked me down around 220. We were gone for only 48 hours, but it felt like 10 weekends packed into one.

Editor's Letter

I could say that this was a freak incident—a one-time blowout, but that would be a lie. Here’s what you need to know about me. I’m 31, single, and I live with my parents in a two-storey home in North York. I still sleep in my childhood bedroom, beneath my Mario Lemieux poster and framed picture of Jesus. My mom does my laundry and makes my meals. And, yes, I can already feel your contempt. But hear me out. I’m not lazy, dumb or deluded. I’m a pharmacist, and I work hard—sometimes six days a week. I sleep roughly five hours a night. I make $130,000 a year, and I spend the vast majority of it on experiences—wild, rare, unforgettable experiences. My guiding philosophy is that life is short and we should savour every moment. And, unlike just about everyone 25 and older in this city, I don’t want in on the real estate craze. It’s not that I can’t afford a house or a condo. I follow the market closely and could hitch myself to a $600,000 mortgage tomorrow if I wanted. But when I consider what I’d be giving up just to own a few hundred square feet, I am convinced: the Toronto real estate market is for suckers, and I want no part of it. Neither should you.

My main group of friends and I call ourselves the Core Four—I’m known as the Plus One—and for the most part, we’re philosophically aligned. First, there’s my older brother, who works in banking as a financial analyst. He’s our de facto hype man, the guy who goes from 0 to 100 in the time it takes to down two shots of tequila. Five years ago, for his birthday, we drank $130-an-ounce, 30-year-old Macallan scotch on the Park Hyatt rooftop. I’m convinced that’s what gold tastes like. My brother also lives at home with my parents and me. Next, there’s a criminal lawyer, whose wife runs a pharmacy. Could they afford to buy? Definitely. But it makes more sense for them to rent and write it off as a business expense. My cousin is our ringleader and the one who got me hooked on the living-large ethos in the first place. He’s a mid-30s Bay Street entrepreneur who runs a tech software company and rents a penthouse in a luxury hotel downtown with his fiancée. He’s the kind of guy who can get a reservation at Reds when they’re booked solid. My cousin started in banking right after finishing his economics degree, so he’s been making money for longer than the rest of us. He spends a hundred hours a week with his clients, so when he finds time to be out with his closest friends, he goes hard. His influence has rubbed off on me. When I’m out on a date, I’ll buy an $80 bottle of wine. But when I’m out with him, I just pick whatever I think is the best, which usually means a $200 bottle. And then there’s our group’s voice of reason. He’s a teacher who wants to own a house one day, and he gets anxious when we’re all out on a bender. He passed on the opportunity to buy a house for $350,000 some 12 years ago when he was a couple of years out of teachers’ college and has always regretted it. He tries to rein in some of our more excessive behaviour, but we tune him out. (I’ve kept all names out of this story to protect my buddies from your scorn.)

As a group, we travel whenever we want, wherever we want. In the last 12 months, I’ve partied in Brazil and backpacked through Guatemala and Mexico. I’ve been to Europe twice—once for a bachelor party in Ibiza and once to attend a friend’s wedding in a castle in Bordeaux. My friends and I decided to turn the latter jaunt into an epic European tour. We touched down in Barcelona (all-night beach party), Paris (foie gras, clubbing), Champagne (champagne)—then to the Loire Valley for the wedding, which was catered by a Michelin-starred chef—followed by Bordeaux (wine), Toulon (more wine), Monaco (cliffside villa, casino), Rome (pasta, pizza, prosecco), and then home—sunburnt, exhausted, pickled from booze, but euphoric.

My wildest trip in recent memory was in 2013: my cousin was in Asia on business, so a few of us decided on a whim to join him. First, we spent five days in Hong Kong, which is like New York City on crack. I had never seen people so excited to buy Louis Vuitton that they line up outside to get into the store. Once we finished shopping, we went to Thailand, booking our hotels just hours before arrival. We hired a guide to take us on a tour of Bangkok, visited a few Buddhist temples, went to the rooftop restaurant featured in The Hangover Part II and got the obligatory Thai massages. Then we hopped on a plane to Manila, where we stayed in the city’s most luxurious hotel. Our lawyer friend really wanted to swim with whale sharks, so we caught a flight to Bohol, a tiny island nearby. Next, we flew to Singapore, where we chugged Singapore slings at their birthplace, the famous hotel Raffles. We went to a speakeasy—there are no signs, and if you didn’t know about it, you’d never notice it—where my brother gulped down five $20 cocktails in a matter of minutes. The 17-day bacchanal cost each of us about $7,000, and I don’t regret a cent.

We’re not particularly restrained at home either. In Toronto, I eat anywhere, anytime. My friends and I don’t have regular spots so much as we like to try everything at least once: Splendido (RIP!), Valdez, Grand Electric, Buca, Patois, Union, Dandylion, Fabbrica, Figo. I haven’t been to Scaramouche yet, but only because I haven’t found that special person to take there.

I’ve tasted more than 170 different wines in the last year—I keep track through an app called Vivino. Lately, I’m finding there are downsides to education; back in the day, when I was a neophyte, I could drink just about anything. These days, I know exactly what I like and what I don’t. Tasting a Rothschild is on my bucket list.

Boy Meets World

Tony lives his life according to a simple rule: never say no. Here’s where it’s led him

Our teacher friend, the relatively temperate one, misses out on our most extravagant outings. That’s because, like so many millennials (the official designation is someone born between 1981 and 1997), he believes a golden era of home ownership is just around the corner. He shares a fantasy of buying a stately detached in Leslieville, High Park or the Beach, of owning an Audi hatchback, weekending in P.E.C., vacationing in the Dominican and maybe snapping up a small cottage in the Kawarthas down the road. Now that’s deluded.

If you’re in your late 20s or early 30s, you’re looking at two options when it comes to real estate, and both come with serious downsides. The first is to leave the city and buy somewhere in the distant reaches of the GTA. One couple I know—he’s an engineer and she’s a support worker for children with autism—bought a brown-brick four-bedroom semi with a backyard in Ajax for $500,000. They can afford a vacation now and again (they went on an all-inclusive trip to Cuba a few years back), but their nights out are limited to what Ajax has to offer. For their anniversary, they went to a hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant for a meal that cost $30, total. They have to drive absolutely everywhere, they go out on the town maybe once a month, and most of their disposable income goes toward saving for their kid’s education.

The alternative: buy downtown and scrimp. Another couple I know, a pharmacist and a physiotherapist, have been married two years and live in a condo in CityPlace. They’re shopping around for their dream home, with a budget of $800,000. I think they’re crazy—they’ll certainly have to pay more than that, and then they’re going to be shackled to a monstrous mortgage for the next 30 years, which will severely limit their ability to have any discernible amount of fun for the next two decades. I rarely see them now; once they’re ensconced in their new house, I wonder if I’ll ever see them again.

A detached home in the 416 costs on average $1.25 million, up 18.9 per cent from spring of last year. A semi costs $901,159, a townhouse $611,899 and a condo $436,545. Meanwhile, the number of active listings is down a staggering 27 per cent year over year, meaning more bidding wars and those obnoxious Sold Over Asking signs. Making matters worse is that millennials, myself included, suck at saving. More than half of us want to retire by the time we turn 60, but 78 per cent of us aren’t putting any money away for retirement. (Boomers are far more realistic—just a third of them think they’ll be able to afford their ideal retirement lifestyle.) A quarter of millennials hope to own a vacation home when they retire. Half don’t even know that cash in an RRSP can be used toward a down payment on a first home. Millennials are the second-most educated generation in history (Gen X beats us by a smidgen) and make up the largest share of the labour market, but 46 per cent are unemployed or working part-time. Our top priority, according to one Manulife survey, is maintaining our current lifestyle, something that should probably be lower on the list considering that millennials earn, per household, an average of $71,000. Debt is causing more than half of us to lose sleep, borrow cash from family and friends, fight with said family and friends about our debts, and feel ashamed about our finances. In short: we want it all, even though the evidence says that’s just not possible. I’ve accepted the truth.

I do understand the appeal of owning property. In fact, a few years ago, I almost succumbed. I set myself a maximum of $750,000 and found a spacious, three-bedroom semi on a quiet, tree-lined street near Don Mills and York Mills. It was listed at $550,000. I did the math. If I put 10 per cent down—a large chunk of my $80,000 savings—I’d be paying close to $2,400 a month in mortgage payments, including mortgage default insurance. Bills and household expenses would take that number up to around $3,500 a month. I figured that if I kept working 60-hour weeks, barring any emergencies or unforeseen expenses, I’d have roughly $2,200 a month left over, after tax, in disposable income, instead of the $5,000 to $7,500 per month I have now. I agonized over it. I talked to my friends and my parents. Frankly, my mom didn’t love the house—she envisions me moving into a mansion but doesn’t really grasp the state of the market. Then I thought about what I’d have to sacrifice. Even if I didn’t want to travel like I do—even if I just wanted to go for a fancy dinner or on a date and not worry about the expense—I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore. I’d have to say no a lot more often and, frankly, I like saying yes. I’d be taking my dates to Kelsey’s and going on the occasional all-inclusive resort vacation when I could afford it. I didn’t want that life. I decided not to make an offer. The house ended up selling for $675,000, some $125,000 over asking.

It was the best call I’ve ever made. I’m seeing the world, plunging into rich, diverse experiences head-first. Would I be better off chained to a mortgage? Who am I hurting by living this way? I’m not contributing to this country’s out-of-control household debt levels or helping heat up an already too-hot real estate market. You could argue that I’m a much more responsible contributor to the economy by being such a conspicuous consumer. I’m also happy. At 31, I’ve checked off 75 per cent of my bucket list. How many homeowners with 2.5 kids, a dog, a fish and a broken furnace can say that?

I haven’t always felt this way. My parents immigrated here from the Middle East in the mid-1970s, with professional degrees, five years before they had my brother. They worked low-end retail jobs while going through equivalency processes for the education they already had. When I was 5, my dad got his qualifications and was able to work in his field again, which allowed us a slightly more comfortable life. We grew up going to church a couple of times a week. On Saturday mornings, we’d all go grocery shopping together, and we’d eat every meal around the dinner table as a family—casseroles, stews and the like. Birthdays meant trips to Chuck E. Cheese’s or pizza lunches in the backyard. In our culture, dining out was considered an extravagance. My parents raised us to understand that money was something to be guarded. They’d do funny little things like unscrew the light bulb in the microwave to save on the hydro bill. They were always preparing for the worst-case scenario—layoffs, catastrophic injury, storm of the century—and it was a good thing they did. There were times when my dad was out of work, but my parents had money saved. A few months later, he’d get another job, and my brother and I were none the wiser. In the ’80s, as soon as they had the cash, they bought a house. They considered it the smartest, most stable investment they could make.

Even so, my brother developed an impulse for wanton spending. Part of it was influence from his friends, but it was also just the way he’s wired. For as long as I can remember, if he had a dollar, he wanted to spend it. As kids, we were given an allowance of $5 a week in grade school, $10 in middle school, $20 in high school. I’d save mine, the way my parents wanted me to, except in the rare instances when I’d splurge on a Michael Jordan or Robbie Alomar trading card. My brother’s was gone in a matter of hours, and he’d then pester me to float him a loan. Almost always, I complied. He’s family. Plus, he always stuck up for me when I got picked on at school or church.

In my teens, an exciting Friday night would be getting together to play video games with my friends and ordering Chinese food or pizza. I never really went out for dinner. But, after I graduated from U of T and began my pharmacology degree in the States (I didn’t get into U of T’s program), everything changed. It all started one summer night with an innocuous dinner at a Brazilian barbecue joint on the Danforth called the Red Violin. I was out with a cousin and his girlfriend. He did the ordering, and when the bill came, it was roughly $150. I thought he was certifiable. A few months later, I went to the Keg with my brother and five friends, and I remember watching the waiters deliver baseball steaks and bottles of wine, my eyes growing wider and wider as the bill climbed to $600. I’d never seen anything like this. We were insane, I thought. When I returned to the cafeteria slop at school, I couldn’t wait to get back to Toronto. It became a pattern: I’d come home from university for a visit, and my cousins would treat me to expensive dinners out. By the time I was in third year, one cousin was running a nightclub on King Street West. We went every Friday I was in town—we walked in and were treated like royalty. He’d reserve the best booth for us, and the servers knew exactly what we liked to drink. For a kid from a humble background, the feeling was intoxicating. People looked at us, wondering who we were. It was as if I’d found the key to an alternate reality where I could have whatever I wanted. I was hooked.

When I finished school, I moved back to Toronto and started making money. We went to Morton’s and had a blowout steak dinner, and I stepped up and covered a big chunk of the bill. I didn’t realize it at the time, but after that, there was no turning back. At first, it was funny how reckless we were. Wow, did we just do that? I’d think, until I found myself doing it three nights in a row. Gradually, I became desensitized, except for the split second when the bill would arrive—that momentary twinge of guilt doesn’t ever totally go away. But the Core Four and I (the schoolteacher’s hand-wringing notwithstanding) don’t judge or guilt-trip each other; we just do it.

Research shows that we millennials can’t begin to think about saving for retirement because we’re so overwhelmed by student loans and finding full-time employment. The job market is a barren wasteland, and for those who can find work, it’s usually on contract, without benefits. In the absence of workplace stability, emotional fulfilment helps us cope.

My parents are often disappointed in my choices, but they’re from another era. Yes, there are drawbacks to living at home. My folks are devout Christians, and they don’t condone sex before marriage. I’ve had girls over, but they rarely stay the night. If they do, my mom makes them sleep in the basement, and she keeps one eye open all night. Do they love when I come home at four in the morning? No. But they get over it. To make it work, my date and I will go to a hotel or her place, or wait until my parents go out. But I save about $1,500 in rent alone by living at home. My parents don’t accept money from me for expenses, although I occasionally chip in for groceries. And I hear what you’re saying: of course you live this crazy lifestyle—your parents support you. That’s true. But I’d be making the same philosophical choices if I rented. I’d just have to save a little more before heading out on big trips. And maybe I’d buy an $80 instead of a $200 bottle of wine. My lifestyle choice would remain the same.

So what happens next? Things are changing. For the last two summers, the Core Four and I had a weekend tradition: on Saturdays, we’d drink in the sun at Cabana Pool Bar and then hit the restaurants on King West at night. Sundays were for Fabbrica, where we’d order just about the entire menu and eat like kings—three appetizers, three pizzas, steak, fish, a pile of sides, five desserts and a few bottles of wine. But the guys are less reliably available this year. The lawyer and the teacher both got married recently, my cousin is engaged (his wedding is in Tuscany this summer), and a few of my other buddies are in serious long-term relationships. I know that in the coming years, they’re going to start having kids. Do I want to follow their lead? Eventually. I don’t want to be living paycheque to paycheque when I’m 40. I want to keep travelling, even if it’s not extravagant jaunts across the world. For now, I’m going to wait and focus on investing in myself: I want to buy into a pharmacy partnership, an endeavour that’s going to drain $50,000 from my savings and take years to get off the ground.

As for real estate, if the options are to flee the GTA or stay and scrimp, I’d rather rent indefinitely. It’s a smart way of looking at real estate in a city that’s transforming overnight. Like Manhattan, Paris and Tokyo, Toronto is becoming a capital of excess, humming with incredible nightlife, fabulous food, high fashion. If I’m going to live here, I want to enjoy it. I’m seeing more and more of my peers contemplating the same path. One day, I hope to raise a family, but I can do it in a beautiful rented condo in a good neighbourhood. With our leftover cash, we’ll travel to Disneyland and take occasional excursions to Europe and Asia. For the time being, I’m content. There’s a new restaurant to try, a new cocktail bar to check out and that Rothschild to uncork.