Cashing Out is The Huffington Post Alberta's look into lives of Albertans who are trying to make their dollars stretch a bit further. We'll examine people who are spending less, cutting back and bucking the rampant consumer culture in a province where the jobs are abundant and the wages high.
Alberta, the land of plenty, is acquiring a taste for the high life.
More one-percenters per capita call Calgary home than any other city in Canada, high-end retail stores are throwing open their doors for business and the real estate market saw more luxury homes go up for sale this year than any other year in the past.
And it shouldn't really come as a surprise. Alberta currently leads the nation in salary increases and hourly pay. The province weathered the recent economic downturn well and consumer spending was the highest in the country last quarter.
More than 100,000 in-migrants came from other provinces in the past year to seek employment in one of the most desirable job markets in the world – numbers even higher than the province's last oil boom of 2005-06.
To outside eyes, it's the proverbial land of milk and honey.
But while the money leaves wallets flush with cash, the prosperity can also come as a burden. Demanding jobs equate to high stress levels for many employees. Real estate prices are steep, leaving many with large mortgages and deep debt. The province-wide mentality of 'work-hard, play-hard' comes at both a mental and financial cost.
Albertans put in the longest workweeks in the country at 39 hours and lead the country in personal debt, with an average of $24,271, not including a mortgage.
"Even though we make more, we spend more and we're also more in debt," Naomi Krogman, Academic Director of the Office of Sustainability at the University of Alberta and Professor of Environment Sociology, told the Huffington Post Alberta.
"There's a mentality that there's enough income to handle it and that maybe we're entitled to that lifestyle."
Albertan's penchant for spending large ties in with high wages, says Krogman, but the province departs from the rest of the county when it comes to moderation and ethic about displaying wealth.
"We're, as a nation, more modest in our spending, but I think Albertans diverge from the rest of the country with the spending we do."
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Personal spending in Alberta often takes the form of home upgrades, purchasing new cars or expensive holidays, says Krogman.
There's often a "professional tax" when Albertans take on new jobs – often having to spend more on professional dress for the office, pricey parking, entertainment and insurance.
As well, she adds, there is a mentality that a new home purchase also requires new furniture, appliances and decorative items, or a new job requires a new wardrobe.
Laurana Rayne, the Calgary-based authour of "Concious Spending. Conscious Life," says if not kept in-check this make-and-spend mentality can have consequences on a person's mental state.
"It becomes a problem on its own - a stress, a weight on shoulders," she said.
Personal debt levels are the most alarming problem Anita Wirth handles on a day-to-day basis.
The Cochrane-based financial educator said two issues she sees her clients struggle with most are spending beyond their means and not saving for retirement.
"It doesn't matter if they make a lot of money or a little bit of money, they are all overspending," she said, noting no matter how much one earns, debt is very easy to accrue in Alberta.
Wirth says she also sees a lot of denial from Albertans about their chequebook balances.
"The most difficult part is having them actually come to seek help because they don't think they have a problem," she said, adding her clients often express shock and remorse when she delivers the reality of their financial situation.
"They have a problem, but they're not ready to face it."
Academics world-wide have long sought to answer the question, "Can money buy you happiness?" And, like most theoretical studies of that scope, there is no concrete answer.
An April report by economists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers at the University of Michigan found that people in places with higher per capita GDP levels tend to have higher levels of life satisfaction.
However, Wolfers told USNews.com their findings indicate it may not be the amount of money that influences happiness, but rather having more money equals expanded freedoms and choices – whether it be to find a new career, move to a more desirable location or to travel.
"It's not income per se, but it's having a broad set of choices, including the choice to have a healthy income," he said.
A similar study by economists at Princeton University found that while people's life evaluations rise steadily with income, feelings of emotional well-being tend to plateau once a certain salary is attained – approximately $75,000 per year.
“We conclude that lack of money brings both emotional misery and low life evaluation; similar results were found for anger,” wrote Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, together with economist Angus Deaton, in the report findings.
“Beyond $75,000...higher income is neither the road to experienced happiness nor the road to the relief of unhappiness or stress, although higher income continues to improve individuals’ life evaluations.”
Earning and spending our way to happiness is a bit of a Catch-22, said Krogman.
Albertans' long hours on the job leave less downtime for other things in life, like chores, errands and spending time with loved ones. Working hard often leads to less impulse control and the inability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward.
"We're working ourselves really hard and rewarding ourselves really hard - but in doing that, those pleasures we get tend to be short-lived," she said.
Too, said Rayne, people tend to chase the pot of gold – only to realize it's not waiting for them at the end of the rainbow.
"Particularly once people get to middle age and hit a point of thinking, “Is this all there is? I did everything the culture promised, I bought all the stuff, I did everything I was told, so why am I not happy, why am I feeling stressed, why am I feeling burdened? I really want off this treadmill,'” she said.
In order to truly find happiness, says Mark Anielski, an Edmonton-based ecological economist and author of "The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth," we must base our lives and communities not on money, but rather on attributes such as education, psychological well-being, health, use of time, culture and environment.
"The costs to the human spirit from unsustainable levels of debt and the interest costs born by all of humanity, embedded in the prices of basic needs, is unjust and unacceptable considering that genuine alternatives to debt-money economics exists," he wrote in a paper last year.
Krogman teaches similar ideals to colleagues and students at the U of A, as part of efforts by her department to lower consumption impact on campus.
"We cannot shop our way to safety and we cannot shop to save the world," she said, adding Albertans need to get serious about sustainable consumption, and that includes pressuring governments to take responsibility for emissions and climate change.
"We have to look at ourselves, being the wealthiest province, and realize the responsibility we have and the message we're sending to the rest of Canada.
"Our consumptive habits are a collective issues which will take a collective effort to revert."
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