How Spending Winter in the Canadian Wilderness Changed My Financial Outlook

Casey Hynes — Up Close & Personal Finance

Through my early 20s, I lived in some of the biggest cities in the world. New York, Seoul, Beijing, Washington D.C.—even Chiang Mai, Thailand. I grew accustomed to being within walking distance of everything I needed (or wanted). Then I fell in love, and my partner and I left behind the digital nomad scene of Southeast Asia for his small, rural hometown of Fairfield, Iowa, hoping to find a slower pace and save some money for our future.

From Fairfield, the trip to the nearest city was made over long stretches of highway cut through farmland as far as the eye could see: not exactly New York. But there’s something to be said about small towns. The walkability, the coziness, the festivals on the town square–it was charming and reassuring. I fell in love with small town life.

Then, in 2018, came a reckoning. While relocating halfway across the world helped us meet some of our financial goals, we were both still working too hard. I’d often work well into the night to give myself wiggle room for online shopping binges and vacations. And I was becoming increasingly stressed and burned out. The solution, we decided, was to head north, into Canada, where we’d rent a remote cabin on a lake in the wilderness. There, I’d find the peace and clarity needed to get my work-life balance on track, curb my spending, and save money for our upcoming wedding.

But if I thought living in a small, rural Iowa town was isolating, I was utterly unprepared for the great white wilderness. OK, “wilderness” might be a bit of an exaggeration. We’re renting in an area known as “cottage country” because of all the summer vacation homes nearby. Woods surround the house on three sides, but we can see our neighbors’ houses, and we are only a 15-minute drive to the very small town nearby.

Not exactly the tundra, but we’re more isolated out here than either of us has ever been. We rarely see our neighbors emerge from said houses, we have to drive a long, unpaved, hilly road to check the mail and get back to civilization, and if the plow doesn’t show up, we’re cut off from the small comforts we might find in the nearest town (and the peace of mind that comes with knowing you can get out in an emergency). Friends and family aren’t exactly clamoring to check out rural Canada in the coldest months of the year, and apparently some online stores aren’t either. The day I received a call informing me I’d have to pick up my Amazon orders from a shipping center 40 minutes away because the driver couldn’t make it out to our house was an eye-opener.

This all led to a palpable feeling of isolation. But it also forced me to confront the unhealthy ways in which I’ve coped with anxiety and restlessness in the past–by spending money.

When we lived in Fairfield, I could soothe or distract myself from my anxiety by buying things. I could take myself out for breakfast and then splurge on $20 worth of soaps, teas, and essential oil sprays that were supposed to ease the panic-addled mind. While skeptical of these magic powers, buying them made me feel good. When something ailed me, my quickest fix was ordering online whatever device or beauty product would give me back, briefly, a sense of control or happiness. Or, I’d go to the store and buy myself macaroni and cheese, Cosmic brownies, and an assortment of other comfort treats to eat my troubles away.

I can’t do those things as easily in Canada. Even when the road to our house isn’t covered in a thick layer of ice blanketed in packed snow, has subpar stock compared with what we can get in the U.S. Leaving the house feels like a production because of the need for all the winter gear, and because everything feels so far away. There’s no “running out for a bit” or just popping over to a coffee shop for a quiet morning. Every outing becomes a planned event and begins with the question of whether the car is going to make it out of the driveway, which is also on a hill.

Ironically, we sought out the quiet, and we celebrated that slower internet would make it harder to indulge our impulsive spending and consumption tendencies. But combined with the isolation, and with our ongoing attempts to recover from psychological burnout, the stripping away of our coping mechanisms has been tough.

It’s also been illuminating. I’ve written before about how I used my increased income from freelancing to justify impulsive and indulgent behaviors. At the time, I thought the pattern was a backlash to the scarcity mentality that had plagued me during my leanest years. But spending this winter in our cabin in the woods showed me how often I spent money just to assuage my anxiety. This is a short-term solution if ever there was one, since overspending always leads to more anxiety once I realize what I’ve done.

Out here, I can’t immediately start online shopping or run out for a cup of organic tea and some New Age retail therapy. Especially on snowy days, I’m stuck in the house with zero junk food, limited online shopping options, and only my racing thoughts to keep me company. I have to confront the root causes of the anxiety rather than spending my way into a false state of calm.

And that woeful lack of Cosmic brownies and endless Amazon options helped me see how unhealthy my lifestyle was. I’ve been forced to go back to cost-free basics, like journaling and reading novels and hitting the treadmill while blasting “Breathin’” (because nothing turns the tide on anxiety like a little exercise and a lot of Ariana Grande.)

Ultimately, we decided the isolation, cold, and snow shoes isn’t for us. In the spring, we’ll be relocating again, to somewhere warmer and more populated, but I’m hopeful that this time has also helped me break some of my worst spending habits. Not being able to go out to eat every other day has undoubtedly saved us hundreds of dollars in the past few months. And curbing the Amazon binges has brought into focus how much we don’t need new stuff. Our goal in coming up here was to rest and simplify, and while I can’t say it’s been a restful experience, we have undergone an enforced simplification. At times it’s been emotionally fraught. But I’d like to think that having to live with less will help me live more simply and conscientiously wherever we move next.