TORONTO – For many immigrants setting up a new life in Canada, the biggest challenge isn’t coming face-to-face with a mountain of snow or dealing with unfamiliar customs, but the sticker shock that comes with such a move.
Elke Van Hout figured she’d thought of everything when immigrating to Canada from her native Belgium with her husband and teenage son in 2010.
She’d done her research, accumulated savings, rented an apartment and even opened a Canadian bank account ahead of the move in August, 2010.
But there were two challenges she didn’t foresee: How difficult it would be to establish a credit history and how high the cost of university would be for her son.
Van Hout said she was fortunate to have had enough savings to convince her new bank to give her get a credit card with an initial limit of $1,000 and slowly help her to build credit. But the family was forced to use their savings to buy their home in cash, along with the used car they needed to get around.
“You have many different kinds of immigrants; some people come here because they have nothing to lose,” she said.
“We were in a different situation. That made it easier for us.”
But the process was expensive and required much more than the $17,000 in savings the government recommends newcomers to Canada bring with them if they are a family of three.
“If people from Belgium or the Netherlands contact me and say: ‘We want to move to Canada, and luckily, we have the $17,000,’ I say: ‘If that is everything you have, please stay where you are,” said Van Hout.
“$17,000 doesn’t bring you anywhere here,” added Van Hout, who now works with one of the skills training and employment centres she used to get into the job market.
Alex Harchenko, a settlement information specialist who deals with newcomers at the Centre for Skills Development and Training in Milton, Ont., said one of the biggest challenges immigrants face is underestimating the amount of money that they’ll spend in the first year.
Many wait to sell their homes overseas, he said, but would be wiser to dispose of those properties and take advantage of newcomer initiatives to buy a home in Canada or have the extra cash.
“The most difficult part when people immigrate to Canada is to figure out how to navigate through a huge number of resources available to them,” said Harchenko, whose centre helps newcomers in Halton Region and Mississauga, Ont., near Toronto.
Government programs like the universal child benefit, as well as training and language programs or tax workshops offered through centres like his, can give a little extra financial aid or help secure a job.
Training programs can also help mitigate cultural difference, he said, noting that a basic lack of understanding about workplace culture in Canada sometimes hurts newcomers’ chances of finding or keeping a job.
Eric Liu, a financial planner with Edward Jones in Vancouver, said making (and sticking to) a budget is another important exercise for people to stay afloat during that crucial first year, since it could take that long to find a job.
Establishing a credit history is key, as is buying term insurance and critical illness insurance to cover a mortgage and protect the family in the event of an illness or accident.
Liu advises against paying for too much in cash in case those reserves are needed for emergencies and also suggests any extra money should be used to make investments that can make the money last longer.
And, as soon as possible, set some money aside for RRSPs, he adds.
Newcomers with children should also try to set up RESPs as soon as they begin making money.
“For a lot of immigrants who come from overseas, one of the main reasons is to give their kids a better education, a better future,” said Liu, who himself immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong 27 years ago.
“If you don’t save for their education how can you achieve that goal?”
Some resources for newcomers: