Almost 50 years ago, my Italian immigrant father purchased his first home in Ottawa. The address: 79 Bayswater Avenue. The selling price: $7,500. It was a 2-storey semi-detached century old house, and a wonderful place to call home for the next two decades. In those days, immigrants had the right idea: purchase a house that can accommodate not one, but two families. Live on one level and rent the other. A brilliant concept then, and a brilliant concept today. Back then, the idea was born more out of necessity rather than choice. The rental income helped pay the mortgage, taxes, or other expenses.
Like most Italians of that era, my parents would never dream of any form of frivolous spending. Salaries were a pittance, jobs long and laborious, and sacrificing wants in the name of needs was a daily part of life. Paying off that mortgage was the top priority. Credit cards were non-existent, as were home equity lines of credit, student loans, and “don’t pay a cent” events, as well as all the other enticing vices that have catapulted our generation into a society of educated, employed adults riddled with debt.
I recall a story that my father once told me, about his first work experience in Canada. The year was 1959, and like the majority of immigrants at the time, he found work on a construction site. The pay: $1.65 a week. The work: gruelling long days, lack of proper outdoor wear, and the commute meant either bus, or walk, at times, two hours each way. His first day on the job a strange horn went off as noon was approaching. A small truck pulled up to the site and a group of workers began to form a line. There was an exchange of coins, and they walked away with strange glass bottles with a dark liquid inside. My father asked a co-worker what that was all about. He instructed my father to just watch them for a moment. He did. As they cracked upon their bottles of ice cold Coca-Cola, my father was astonished. “Those men have really made it in this country,” he told his co-worker. “They must be earning quite a good salary to be able to afford to buy a drink from the canteen.” His co-worker’s reply: “if we work hard enough, maybe in six months to a year, we’ll be able to afford one too.”
I often ask myself, “what did I learn from that story?” The answer is as simple as I am: I learned that I am an absolute idiot when it comes to spending, saving, and sacrificing. I even typed those in the wrong order – it should read – sacrificing, saving, and eventually, spending. What did I do with my first pay cheque? Well I suppose I did one half of what my father wanted me to do – I walked straight to the Royal Bank on Somerset and Merton Street. He had hopes that I would deposit the whole thing and immediately begin earning interest. I, on the other hand, cashed it and hopped on the number 2 bus to Rideau Street and headed straight into Aldo’s for a new pair of shoes!
Fast forward a few decades, and I have yet to break that cycle of earning and spending, with little saving in between. I do not live in a duplex or semi-detached home that could produce rental income. I do not own a second or third property that could produce rental income. I do, however, own a vast collection of Italian leather shoes and purses that may very well never produce any income! My father shouts at himself, particularly around the family dinner table, “where did I go wrong?” My sisters and I assure him that he did a fine job and raised three lovely daughters, who adore him, but just happen to have a penchant for nice things.
His reply is always the same: “But what about “a duplexy or nu bellu bungalow” to rent? Our answer is always the same: “who wants espresso and biscotti?” And then quietly make plans to stop in at Winner’s, HomeSense, and Starbuck’s on our drive home.
By Dosi Cotroneo