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This server and event cook makes $24,500 a year on minimum wage. How does she spend it?

“I’m making more per hour since the minimum-wage increase, but the price of fruits and vegetables just keeps going up”

By Anthony Milton| Photography by Lucy Lu
This server and event cook makes $24,500 a year on minimum wage. How does she spend it?

Scores of Torontonians got a raise on October 1, when the province’s minimum wage increased from $15.50 an hour to $16.55. With housing as unaffordable as ever and inflation driving up the price of just about everything, the bump was a no-brainer—and labour advocates say the minimum wage would have to be closer to $23 an hour to be considered a living wage. This move is part of a longer saga of minimum-wage increases that started when Doug Ford’s government cancelled a planned increase from $14.35 to $15 upon his taking office in 2018. After much delay, 2022 saw two increases—first to $15 in January and then to $15.50 in October—that led up to the current $16.55. Here, Lucia Martinez, an immigrant from Mexico working a minimum-wage job, tells us how the increase will change her day-to-day and why the bump isn’t enough to tackle the cost-of-living crisis.


Who: Lucia Martinez, in her 30s

What she does: She’s a server at Eggsmart and an event cook at Stellar

What she makes: With the minimum-wage increase, she’ll go from making about $24,500 per year to about $25,600 per year. She makes minimum wage at Eggsmart plus about $100 per week in tips. While she usually works an average of 21 hours per week there, that’s recently been cut down to 16 hours, so next year she may earn less overall. At Stellar, she makes $20 an hour, before tax, but her hours are inconsistent. “It really depends on how busy they are. Sometimes I work 25 hours, but other weeks there’s nothing.” That income averages out to about $250 per month.

Where she lives: A rental room in a four-bedroom house near Weston Road and Lawrence Avenue West. She shares the house with four roommates. “My room has space for a mattress, a closet and a desk. It’s not very big, but it’s enough for me.”

 Lucia Martinez in her living room
Portrait of Lucia Martinez in her home. Tuesday, October 17, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario.
Regular Expenses

Rent: $800 a month, including utilities, internet and streaming services. “I’d like to find my own apartment someday and have more space to myself. I haven’t figured out how to make that work financially, though. I’d need to either get more hours or find a better job.”

Groceries: $400 per month. “I always have eggs and milk, and sometimes I’ll get cheese, beans, rice and vegetables. I try to buy chicken once per week, plus ground beef so I can make empanadas or albondigas, which are staples in Mexico. I also get a free breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast when I’m at my waitress job, so I save some money that way.”

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Phone plan: $70 per month, with Virgin Plus.

Clothes: $25 per month. “I have to buy black jeans to wear at both my jobs, but they wear out after a month or two because I’m moving around so much. I always try to buy them on sale somewhere.”

Entertainment: $100 per month. “My boyfriend and I like to go to the Duke on Queen Street East. They have free pool and karaoke, so all you have to buy is drinks. My landlord also has Netflix and Disney Plus, so sometimes we’ll stay in and watch movies at my house.”

Hobbies: $0 per month. Her income and unpredictable work schedule make it hard to justify non-essential purchases. “I always need to have at least one month of expenses saved up in case I get sick or don’t get enough hours at work. My boyfriend and I like to spend time outdoors, though. We often go to the Beaches. Walking is free, and there are always concerts and festivals in the summer. I try to enjoy the little things I can find.”

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Transit: $80 to $120 per month. “I have to take the TTC to my job with Stellar. It’s catering, so it’s always at different locations.” Her other job, at Eggsmart, is just down the street from her house, so she’s able to save by walking. “I had to become fluent in English before I could get a customer-facing job like that. Once I did, I made sure to look for something close to my place.”

Debt: $0 per month. “None, thank God. My income isn’t much, but at least I don’t have any debt.”

Savings: $0 to $800. Irregular shifts at work mean Martinez’s ability to save varies from month to month. “Sometimes I can save $200 or even $500, but sometimes I can’t save anything.” Recently, though, she managed to save hard. “I moved here from Mexico in 2019. In March, someone told me I needed to have $6,000 in savings to apply to be a permanent resident. I had $1,500 saved for emergencies, but in six months, I managed to add $4,500 to that by working extra shifts and only eating one meal per day. My iron is really low now. I have to spend $50 per month on supplements to get it back to normal.”

Lucia Martinez's living room
The upstairs living room of the home Lucia Martinez rents.Tuesday, October 17, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario.
Splurges

Permanent residency application: $800. “When I went to pay the fee, it turned out it was only $800, not $6,000! I’m not sure if I was confused or if I got bad information. But, now that I have some money saved, I’m thinking of doing something nice for myself. Maybe buying a nice shawarma meal or some extra winter clothes.”

Blue Jays game: $25. “My boyfriend and I went in September. We got the cheapest tickets we could find and bought one drink to share.”

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Lucia's living room
Future Plans

Martinez isn’t sure how much the minimum-wage increase will actually affect her budget. “I may be making more money, but the price of fruits and vegetables just keeps going up.” If there’s anything left over after her basic expenses, she’d like to invest it in herself. “I’d want more education so I can find a better job. My dream is to become an engineer or a technician of some sort.”

Despite the hardship, she’s hopeful. “In Mexico, it’s cheaper to eat, but there’s more crime. Here, you’re safe, but everything is more expensive. I know that I’m starting from the bottom in Canada, but I’m learning. I won’t always have an on-call job or low wages. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll find a better job, become an engineer, get my own house or a condo and get a better life. It’s possible, so why not?”

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