For millions of addicts, acceptance is the first step to recovery. I found this to be true for overcoming depression and anxiety, and it’s just as relevant for overcoming financial problems, too.
I’m able to share these deeply personal experiences now because I’m writing from a place of awareness and acceptance. I had to accept that I was spending more than I could afford, that I was buying things I didn’t need in order to feel good about myself and compensate for a deep unhappiness.
Bottom line…I had to take a long, hard look in the mirror to get to this point. I had to fix what was on the inside in order to change the stuff on the outside. This change did not happen overnight. It’s been a slow-burning process of self-discovery combined with tough love.
That’s the hard part.
The easy part is maintaining a ruthless budget, aggressively paying down debt, and staying committed to growing my financial intelligence.
(Just kidding, none of it is easy.)
Through this process I’ve learned just how senseless we can be about money and how seemingly innocent pleasures cost small fortunes over time.
With all the financial stress we endured as a family, I used to think our only problem was that we were poor. But it never occurred to me why.
Now I know the truth.
We were poor because my parents spent all of their money on drugs and alcohol.
What follows is a simple exercise in calculating the cost of addiction.
The purpose of sharing this is not to embarrassment my parents. In reality, many of us are spending along these lines without thought or hesitation.
I’m sharing it because it’s a valuable lesson in how we can easily lose track of our consumption, our spending, and ourselves.
First I must disclose that I am not an economist, analyst, or anything of the sort. My calculations are based solely on simple, conservative estimates and assumptions.
Instead of trying to guess how much my parents consumed in their wild adolescent years — it was after all the 60s, and they were after all my parents — I ran my calculations from the year they were married (1976–2016).
For each of those 40 years, I estimated how much they consumed on a per-week basis for each of their addictions: cigarettes, alcohol, beer, and cannabis.
I then collected consumer price and inflation data from the internet to determine the cost of each substance over the last 40 years.
All my calculations can be found here.
A note on being conservative
I watched my parents drink, smoke and consume cannabis from the time I was born. The knowledge I have is based on first-hand experience and is therefore highly subjective.
To counteract this subjectivity, I purposely underestimated their rate of consumption across all categories. I also excluded sales tax from my calculations for cigarettes, beer and alcohol, which in the province of Ontario is 15%.
In the 90s, my dad was smoking a half pack of cigarettes a day, or roughly three and a half packs a week. My mother smoked a little less, and quit for six years.
For the sake of this study, I assumed together they smoked three packs a week from 1976–2002; two packs a week from 2003–2009 (when my mother quit); zero packs from 2010–2014 (when they both quit); and two packs a week from 2015–2016 (when my mother started smoking again).
To determine the cost of cigarettes from 1976–2016, I used historical data from a study, which extrapolated cigarette prices from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index.
Canada has an extremely high tobacco and sales tax, which makes the present day cost of a 24-pack of cigarettes approximately $12 CDN ($8.89 USD). In the US, that same pack is worth $7.44 CDN ($5.51 USD).
I used US data because it was readily available and, even with the exchange rate, it gave me a very conservative baseline for the cost of cigarettes.
Total amount spent on cigarettes (1976–2016): $9,002.76
Beer & Alcohol
By 1997, my parents were consuming between one to two 40-ounce bottles of vodka a week. My mom also consumed a minimum of 24 bottles a beer a week. I assumed they purchased one bottle of vodka and one case of beer a week.
The current price for a 40-ounce bottle of vodka in Ontario before tax is $39.45. The current price for a case of beer before tax is $33.95.
I used the Canadian consumer price index (CPI) to determine the rate of inflation, calculating backwards from the present day retail price to determine the cost of beer and vodka over the last 40 years.
Total amount spent on beer & alcohol (1976–2016): $108,226.61
By 2003, my parents were consuming between $80-$120 a week worth of cannabis. I can’t recall the exact amount, but their dealer told me that it was a lot — more than any of his other clients!
(They developed such a kinship with him, my mom would give him her debit card and pin number, and he would retrieve the funds in his own time. He also brought all of us flowers on Valentine’s Day. Needless to say, my parents were good customers.)
In 2010 my parents quit smoking weed altogether and this is reflected in the cannabis sub-total.
Because it’s an illicit substance in Canada (at the time of writing), and therefore not yet regulated, it was difficult to determine the cost of cannabis over the last 40 years. Nevertheless, I set a benchmark of $80 in 2003 (as that’s what I recall my parents spending at that time) and calculated historical costs using CPI data. I assumed that the cost of cannabis would increase in line with inflation.
Total amount of money spent on cannabis (1976–2016): $116,804.20
Grand total amount of money spent on cigarettes, alcohol, beer, and cannabis: $234,033.57
Lost Opportunity Costs
Because my parents spent so much time under the influence, they rarely made good financial decisions.
I get that life is too short to not have fun, but when you’re constantly feeding an addiction, it’s almost impossible to have any real perspective of what’s going on around you, and how your relationships, finances or health is being affected.
For my parents, any spare time was spent consuming. Little attention was dedicated to budgeting, planning or learning how to better manage their money.
They prioritised substances over shelter, retirement, and an emergency fund. They also failed to prioritise debt, and because of this, they spent their life constantly paying it off.
My parents are not bad people. In fact, they’re just like most families: Chronically in debt and living well beyond their means. But the amount of money they spent on cigarettes, alcohol and cannabis over the years has put them in serious danger of losing their home, and spending their retirement years living in poverty.
The real tragedy
It’s not the $234,000 they spent on cigarettes, booze and weed that’s the real tragedy.
The real tragedy is $117,016.79.
That’s half of what they consumed and spent.
Had they reduced their consumption rate by half, they could have invested $117k in a pension and still lived a pretty rock ’n’ roll lifestyle by most people’s standards.
Over 40 years, at a conservative rate of interest, their pension would now be worth $432,075.21. Here are my exact calculations.
That amount of money would generate $2,880.50 a month in interest.
Combined with Canada’s old age pension ($685-$1,114), they would receive $3,500-$4,000 a month to live. My father could cease working, and they could spend their retirement years enjoying life.