I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Name: Shannon Simmons
Job: Certified Financial Planner and creator of the Barter Babes Project.
In the past six months, financial advisor Shannon Simmons has received a butter-churning lesson, a filing cabinet, and a trapeze adventure—among countless other objects and lessons—in exchange for her services. The creative, no-cash payment plan is the basis for the Barter Babes Project, a year-long grassroots experiment wherein Simmons barters her financial expertise for whatever young women can spare. Simmons meets her clients at coffee shops around the city, where she reaps the benefits of their varied professions or skills in exchange for a multi-hour financial counselling session.
The idea for Barter Babes came to Simmons over a year ago, while she was waiting in line at a bar. “I overheard two girls talking about money, and they were like, ‘What is a TFSA, anyways?’ So I just said, ‘Oh, it’s a tax-free savings account,’ and we got into this whole discussion,” she says. At the time, the 25-year-old Simmons was working with high net-worth clients at a downtown firm, a job she had secured after completing her undergrad in economics and business. “After the talk, the girls came by and dropped off pints for my whole table. They said, ‘We can’t pay you for your advice, but at least we can buy your beer!’ It was a watershed moment for me.”
Simmons had already been thinking about devising a project through which should could provide financial advice to young women, the majority of who can’t typically access or afford it. “I wanted to help, but there’s no functional business plan for helping that demographic,” she says. “Then I realized: the clients wouldn’t have to pay me in cash—I could bring back the barter system.”
Now halfway through the year-long project, Simmons has received everything from home-cooked frozen meals to cheerleading lessons from grateful barterers. She saved rigorously in preparation for the year without income, and keeps herself on a strict budget in order to get by. “There’s all the stuff I used to take for granted, like going out or getting my hair done. I can’t do those now. But I still don’t think I’ll go back to the 9 to 5, corporate world after this. I love what I’m doing, and the service I’m providing.”
Why did you decide to focus the project on providing advice to young women?
After I graduated from university, I was doing field research on both genders in the Generation Y demographic—people 20 to 40 years old—and money. I noticed major trends among women who had just finished their undergraduate degree: while they were in school they didn’t care about money, but as soon as they get out they start freaking out right away. Men don’t start worrying about money until around age 35, when they realize they have to pay attention to it. After college, they just assume that something down the road will happen and they’ll get a better job or make more money somehow. But women are much more pessimistic; they think they might never actually make that much money, and that creates a lot of guilt and anxiety.
Did you feel that way when you graduated from university?
Yeah, I had massive student debt by the time I finished. I decided to pay it all off in one year, so I moved home and lived on $80 a week. It was the cheapest year of my life. But I felt like everywhere I went, even at the gym, women were freaking out about money. There’s the want and need for financial advice for this whole group of people—young women—who can’t access it, and I wanted to help.
What are the most common mistakes or misinterpretations that your clients have about their finances?
The biggest faux-pas I see for people with debt is to want to save up and make big, dramatic payments rather than making a small payment each month, which helps with the interest. But I have a wide range of clients; some have no debt and are actually looking to invest, and some have lots. Lawyers have the most debt I’ve ever seen!
I’m consistently shocked at the amount of people who have a good income who still spend too much on their fixed costs, meaning rent, bills, food, etc. Even if you have a great income, you are still spending too much on your rent or mortgage if you don’t have anything left over to save at the end of the month. My rule of thumb is that your fixed costs—the things you’d have to spend money on even if you didn’t have a job—should only be 50% of your monthly income. If your fixed costs are too high it doesn’t leave you any room in your budget to spend, and then people binge on credit cards, and that can get out of control really fast.
There’s also a lot of confusion about the difference between an RRSP and a tax-free savings account. All the time, my clients say their money is in an RRSP, so it’s safe. But it’s not necessarily—you can have an RRSP that has stocks in it, which isn’t safe. It’s what’s in the account that matters, not just what type of account it is.
For a financial expert like yourself, how did it feel to embark on a year where your own finances were unsteady?
I cried for the first two weeks! I couldn’t believe I had actually quit my job. When I told my [former] co-workers, the first thing out of their mouths was, ‘There’s no income here, so how are you going to make money?’ They work in finance, so income is naturally the first thing on their minds! They loved the idea of the project, but they all think I’m totally crazy. Even now that the project is a complete success and I’m booked solid, I’m still freaked out when I think about what I’ll do when it ends.
How has working with people from all kinds of careers affected your own professional aspirations?
I used to be so corporate, but I’m such a bohemian now! It’s been so rewarding for me personally to get to meet a lot of artists and people who don’t have conventional 9 to 5 jobs. I feel like these are my people! This is the first time I haven’t had my life planned out for the next eight years. I’d love to continue to be able to barter somehow, but for the first time ever I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing next year. I’m just along for the ride.
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.