Cost of living in Canada at a glance
So, is Canada cheap or expensive?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. First, it depends on the cost of living you’re used to—you may find it lower if you’re from Norway and you may find it very high if you’re from Argentina. Second, Canada is a huge country and cost of living varies widely between regions, provinces/territories and cities. Third, your perception depends on how much money you make—Toronto will feel very expensive if you get by on minimum wage but affordable on a good salary. Finally, we all have different lifestyles and expectations. “Eating out” can mean grabbing a burger or trying the newest trendy spot, “getting around” can be taking public transit or buying your own vehicle, and a full grocery cart can be rice/veggies/proteins for basic meals or top-brand products for elaborate at-home experiments.
That said, your top living expense, and probably the major recurring one, will be rent. As usual, you’ll pay more in big cities—note that housing is also very expensive “up North” despite plenty of land.
You should also budget for transportation (vehicle, public transit), food, Internet access, a cellphone plan, cable TV, entertainment (restaurants, bars, movie theatre, etc.)—and sales taxes!
Keep in mind that all examples given are estimates.
Most expensive cities in Canada
Most newcomers settle in one of Canada’s three biggest cities—Toronto (population 6.2 million), Montreal (population 4.1 million) and Vancouver (population 2.3 million). Despite their comparatively smaller size, Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria are also expensive. Good news, there are other cities in Canada and most are cheaper! For a lower cost of living, you could consider Quebec City, Halifax or Regina. Ottawa, the national capital, remains surprisingly affordable despite a housing market on the rise.
Don’t hesitate to explore Canada! Need inspiration? Read Going off the beaten track – a few testimonies.
According to Mercer’s “2019 Cost of living city ranking,” the most expensive Canadian cities are:
- 1. Vancouver (ranking 112th most expensive city in the world)
- 2. Toronto (ranking 115th most expensive city in the world)
- 3. Montreal (ranking 139th most expensive city in the world)
- 4. Calgary (ranking 153rd most expensive city in the world)
- 5. Ottawa (ranking 161st most expensive city in the world)
Canada’s rental market
For more details about each province and territory’s rental market refer to the dedicated chapters.
Every fall, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a Crown Corporation of the Government of Canada, releases the latest housing market data for Canada, including average rent for a bachelor as well as for a one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments in all the major cities. We used the latest data available (October 2018) to create the map below.
It’s worth mentioning that many experts claim that the CMHC underestimates the cost of housing for Canadian—indeed, in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, vacancy rates have been declining and rent rising. The media regularly reports increased pressure on affordable housing (e.g. Soaring rents and house prices in Canadian cities make housing a key election issue). So, take the CMHC data with a grain of salt, and compare it to local rent prices listed on Kijiji for instance.
We also offer estimates from PadMapper (a location-based apartment rental search engine) and RentSeeker, an online apartment finder and real estate marketing company. Both almost always have estimates higher than the CMHC.
This map is still an easy way to see how different average rent prices are across the country:
Average monthly rent price for a bachelor apartment:
In the biggest cities, the more central the apartment, the more you will pay. Living in a suburb is usually cheaper but it may require a lifestyle adjustment—in Canada, the typical suburb is geared towards families, so expect big-box stores and franchised restaurants but few bars and trendy dining options, two-car garages but few public transit options.
Rent price is a major factor when looking for a place. However, it’s also important to take into consideration how long you have to commute (Canadian cities can be very spread out), the public transit system (available during rush hour only or can you go out at night?), how close relevant shops, businesses and services are, your own safety, etc. Don’t forget that it gets cold in Canada—a thirty-minute walk to the nearest supermarket is pleasant in summer but hellish in winter.
According to Statistic Canada, in 2017, the average adult was spending $355 per month on food (groceries and restaurants).
Estimating food costs is particularly tricky because it varies widely within Canada, provinces and cities. Generally speaking, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador spend less on food, while prices are higher in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
You must have heard a thing or two about North America and junk food … it is true that produce and dairy products tend to be more expensive than in Europe, for instance. Buying local, natural, sustainable or organic food without breaking the bank also requires some research and flexibility.
Shopping around is often the key for healthy and cheap meals. Competition is fierce between large supermarket chains so it makes sense to look for “weekly specials,” i.e. discounted products in the weekly flyers. You can also buy produce at the market (if available), in international grocery stores (in Chinatown, Little India, Greek Town, etc.) or from independent greengrocers. Check out farm-to-table and farmer baskets for alternative options as well.
You will find below a sample of average retail prices for common foods and selected products as of September 2019. We used Statistic Canada’s Monthly average retail prices for food and other selected products data and other sources like Canadian supermarkets (e.g. Metro). Note that all prices are before any discount you may find (good job!) and they vary from one province to another (for more details, read the province-specific chapters).
- Ground beef, 1 kg: $11.67
- Chicken, 1 kg: $7.44
- Bacon, 1 kg: $15
- Butter, 450 g: $5
- Cow’s milk, 1 L: $1.25
- Carton of 12 eggs: $3.34
- Sour cream, 250 ml: $5.20
- Philadelphia Cream Cheese, 250 g: $5
- Pack of shredded mozzarella, 1 kg: $15.60
- Processed cheese slices, 250 g: $2.52
- Brie cheese, 200 g: $8
- Whole milk yogurt 4 x 100 g: $4
- Apples, 1 kg: $5
- Organic apples, 1 kg: $6
- Bananas, 1 kg: $1.54
- Organic bananas, 1 kg: $3
- Oranges, 1 kg: $3.5
- Organic oranges, 1 kg: $6.6
- Onions, 1 kg: $2.42
- Carrots, 1 kg: $2.34
- Tomatoes, 1 kg: $7.80
- Cauliflower (unit): $5
- Iceberg lettuce (unit): $3
- Eggplants, 1 kg: $5.50-$8
- Potatoes, 1 kg: $2.50
- Zucchini, 1 kg: $4.40
- Frozen fries, 1 kg: $3.50
- Slices bread, 675 g: $2.80
- Soda, 2 L bottle: $3
- Peanut butter, 500 g: $3.20
- Olive oil, 1 L: $15
- Sunflower oil, 1 L: $3.90
- Barilla spaghetti, 500 g: $2.50
- Basmati rice, 1 kg: $5
- Tomato sauce, jar: $1.50 (basic), $3-$5 (bit fancier option), $8-$12 (top quality)
Costs of car ownership (gas and insurance)
If you’re thinking of buying a car, don’t forget to add registration fees, gas, maintenance and insurance on top of the price of the vehicle itself.
Gas is more expensive in Canada than in the US but it’s still cheaper than in many countries around the world. The price is always in cents per litre and it fluctuates every day. Gas is more expensive in some provinces/territories than in other—keep this in mind if you live close to a border! As of late 2019, you’ll pay $1.13 per litre on average, and up to $1.59 per litre in Vancouver. Check the daily updated Retail Fuel Prices by Province for a complete overview of a current gas prices (taxes included).
Car insurance is relatively expensive and where you live can increase your premiums—for instance, insuring a vehicle in British Columbia or Ontario will cost more than in Quebec or New Brunswick. As a newcomer to Canada, most insurance companies won’t acknowledge driving experience abroad and will consider you a “new driver,” so you will pay more.
Read Buying a car in Canada and Everything You Need to Know to Rent a Vehicle in Canada for more info.
Pretty much any traveller except Australians and Americans will find Canadian cellphone plans very expensive. The local nickname for the three main telco companies—Rogers, Bell and Telus? “Robelus”!
Not only is there a lack of competition but many “options” that are included in the rest of the world are offered for a fee in Canada, e.g. call display, voicemail, call forwarding, etc. You’re also charged for both outcoming and incoming calls.
Budget $40-$60 for a plan with unlimited minutes and texts messages plus some data (usually 1 GB). Smaller providers are still owned by the “big three” (Koodo is owned by Telus, Virgin Mobile by Bell and Fido is by Rogers) but they are slightly cheaper. For instance, you’ll pay $65 for unlimited talk and text plus 3 GB of data with Virgin mobile. Plans with more data are around $100. Oh, and by the way … taxes aren’t included, more on that in a second.
Moral of the story:
- Cheaper providers: Fido, Public, Virgin, Wind, Koodo, Mobilicity, Solo Mobile, Freedom Mobile…
- Parent companies (most expensive): Rogers, Bell and Telus
- Use free WiFi whenever possible! There are plenty of hotspots available—fast food restaurants, coffee shops, malls, public libraries, etc.
You can try PlanHub’s free tools to find the mobile plan at the best price for each province. No, seriously, use it—cellphone plans are deliberately difficult to compare.
Landline, Internet and cable TV
Home phone, Internet and cable TV are often “bundled” and even getting rid of two services—who needs a landline when you have a cellphone, and who needs cable when you can stream?—doesn’t necessarily make it a better deal.
The two main telco providers are Rogers and Bell. For a home phone/Internet/cable bundle, you’ll pay $100 per month with a two-year contract with either Rogers or Bell (surprise, surprise … almost as if there was some kind of agreement in effect…!). Note that these offers don’t include fiber and Internet usage is not unlimited.
For Internet access only, basic plans with Rogers or Bell are around $50-$80 per month with a 100 GB data cap. Unlimited Internet with fiber starts at $100 per month.
Smaller and local providers like Distributel offer cheaper basic plans for $40-$85 per month.
As in most places in the world, you’ll find a $20 pair of jeans and a $200 pair of jeans just next door—the logic of fashion…
Generally speaking, European brands and fashion (e.g. H&M, Zara, Doc Martens shoes, etc.) are more expensive than in Europe even if you factor in the exchange rate. Shoes and leather goods (bags, belts, etc.) are also more expensive than in Europe.
On the other hand, American brands tend to be cheaper than in many places around the world—Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Fossil, Levis, etc. When the American and Canadian dollars are almost at par, it’s often even cheaper to cross the border and shop in the USA. However, don’t forget you may need a visitor visa or a travel authorization via ESTA if you’re eligible under the Visa Waiver Program.
For detailed info, read the chapter Becoming a “Canadian customer”—grocery shopping and more in the Guide to a Working Holiday in Canada.
Alcohol, tobacco and cannabis
Taxes on alcohol and cigarettes are high so both are expensive. For instance, in Toronto, a pack of cigarettes is $14 and a bottle of wine is $16.
Recreational cannabis is now legal as of October 2018. Prices vary depending on the province/territory but expect to pay $7 per gram.
In Canada, prices are always “before tax,” it’s added at the point of sales (e.g. when you’re about to pay). If you only have $1 in your pocket, don’t buy a $1 soft drink because you will actually end up paying $1.05 in Alberta, $1.13 in Manitoba and $1.15 in Quebec!
The Canadian sales taxes include:
- the Provincial Sales Tax (PST)
- the Quebec Sales Tax (QST)
- the Goods and Services Tax (GST)
- the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), a combination of the PST and the GST in some provinces
The tax rate varies based on the province/territory.
The goods and services tax (GST)
This 5% tax is levied by the federal government everywhere in Canada.
No GST is charged on “essential items,” for instance:
- Basic groceries (milk, bread, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, coffee, etc.)
- Prescription drugs
- Feminine hygiene products (tampons, pads, menstrual cups) as of July 1, 2015
Soft drinks, alcohol, chocolate, frozen fries, pizza, ice cream, cleaning products, over-the-counter drugs, toys and hygiene products are taxed.
The Canada Revenue Agency’s definition of “essential items” can be puzzling—fresh and frozen vegetables aren’t taxed but sandwiches are. When shopping, assume your items will be taxed and don’t try to understand the logic (if you insist, do read the very detailed Basic Groceries memorandum from the Canada Revenue Agency!).
The provincial sales tax (PST)
As the name suggests, it’s levied by the provinces at different rates:
- New Brunswick: 10% (GST+PST = 15% tax)
- Nova Scotia: 10% (GST+PST = 15% tax)
- Quebec: 9.975% (GST+PST = 14.975% tax)
- Prince Edward Island: (GST+PST = 15% tax)
- Ontario: 8% (GST+PST = 13% tax)
- Manitoba: 7% (GST+PST = 12% tax)
- British Columbia: 7% (GST+PST = 12% tax)
- Saskatchewan: 6% (GST+PST = 11% tax)
- Newfoundland and Labrador: 10% (GST+PST = 15% tax)
Alberta, Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut don’t have a PST so the only tax charged is the 5% GST.
Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador combined the goods and services tax (GST) and the regional provincial sales tax (PST) into a single value added sales tax, the harmonized sales tax (HST). The rate is the same, it’s just one line on your receipt instead of two.
The unofficial tax—the tip!
Restaurant menus don’t include sales tax (es) or the socially mandatory tip, around 15%. Get used to tipping, even if the practice is weird or foreign to you because it’s proper etiquette in both Canada and the USA.
So when you’re looking at the menu, mentally add 25-30% to the price—the 10-15% tax plus the 15% tip.