“We didn’t come here to get government assistance. We came here to be successful in life. We came with a dream and we had the courage to come out of that situation to achieve it.”
I’m ushered into a quiet office behind the teller counter of a First Calgary Financial branch. A composed and soft-spoken woman with an intelligence that sparkles just behind her eyes invites me to sit.
“How should we begin?” She asks me.
“How about at the start?” I reply. “I understand from my colleagues in Momentum’s Financial Empowerment department that you’re pretty inspiring – I just want to hear your story.”
She smiles shyly and nods.
Rehana, a wife and mother of two young girls, recounts her story carefully and with precision, pausing just long enough to allow me to catch up on the pages of notes I’m taking. She recalls how she and her family arrived in Canada with little money and no savings – and now, 6 years later, has saved over $22,000 and is poised to put a down-payment on her first home.
“It was like we were lost.”
Rehana came to Canada from Bangladesh with her husband and eldest daughter in 2013. “We came to Canada as Skilled Professionals,” she explains. “We came here to work.” However, neither her Master’s degree in Economics, nor her husband’s experience as a chemical engineer, were recognized at first. They had to find part-time jobs to survive.
There were times, Rehana said, when she questioned the decision to leave Bangladesh and their large and supportive extended family. Often, she worried for her family’s future. “I started from zero,” she explains. “It was so stressful. Some days I cried and cried.”
“I knew I had to work and fight for my goals and dreams.”
Rehana enrolled at the University of Calgary in 2014 to re-do her Master’s in Economics. She completed the program the next year and welcomed her second daughter soon after–in May 2016. Around this time her husband was laid off. Struggling for a year and a half to find long-term work, and with a growing family, Rehana and her husband discovered subsidized housing.
Rehana pauses and looks at me pointedly—to ensure I note what she’s about to say: “Please make sure to thank and include Calgary Housing – without them we couldn’t have survived.”
The stability of Calgary Housing allowed Rehana’s husband to access additional supports. Through Calgary Catholic Immigration Services, he completed Class 5 Power Engineering training and found long-term work as a building operator in September 2017. Less than 4 months later, Rehana was offered a job as a Teller at First Calgary Financial. Since then, she has risen in the ranks and is now an Investment Coordinator working towards a third promotion.
“You have to dare to have a dream.”
“Even through all of this we were not discouraged,” she explains. “We didn’t come here to get government assistance. We came here to be successful in life. We came with a dream and we had the courage to come out of that situation to achieve it.”
This courage came in the form of taking a serious look at her family’s finances and seeking help in managing them through Matched Savings programs. “I got an email from Momentum saying that I could get $500 to save for my children’s education – that opened my mind to saving.” Through the Fair Gains program’s incentivized savings approach, Rehana was able to open an RESP and set aside $2,000 within a year for her daughters’ future education.
“I didn’t know I could start saving towards owning my own home!”
Rehana and her family were then invited to participate in the Owen Hart Home Owners program, where she learned that home ownership was more than a dream – it was possible.
A grin breaks across her face as Rehana recalls how skeptical her husband was at first. He didn’t think that money could be found in their already-tight budget to both support their dream of owning a home and start a personal TFSA.
“I said to my husband, ‘Yes, we CAN!’ I thought at least $50/month was possible, but then poured in $300-400 per month,” she explains. “Any extra funds we received, like GST cheques or reimbursements, we just poured into the savings. I was able to save from $0 to 6,200.”
When she introduced the idea of opening a Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA), her husband rejected the idea. “Every month I wanted to save $500 to my husband’s savings,” Rehana explains. “He worried that this money would be taken from what he sends back home to take care of responsibilities and medication for his (ailing) mother.” She smiles wryly as she continues. “I told him I don’t need his money, just his signature!” Less than a few years later, her husband has over $10,000 in his TFSA.
“Take it positive. Think differently.”
Rehana attributes the Matched Savings and Money Management programs at Momentum with opening her mind to more. “You have to think differently,” she says. “Many people think that they cannot do something because they don’t know enough about it. Rethink everything,” she continues. “You and your family can get the knowledge.”
I look at my watch – we’ve been chatting for the entire lunch hour. I ask her where she’s at now – what new ways is she finding to help her family?
She beams warmly and explains how she will be putting an offer on a house by next summer. “I know my credit and limits,” Rehana explains. “I know the amount of mortgage I am pre-approved for. I know my savings. I know the neighbourhood I want to live in.” She has also decided to do a second Master’s degree to become a more competitive applicant in the job market.
Soon after our meeting and at home, a calendar reminder I’ve been avoiding for months pops up: “Handle Finances!” I remember the conversation I’ve just had, and rather than pressing mute, I sit down to work on my own budget. Within a few hours, and after a couple of phone calls I have found a way to reduce my spending by at least $50/month.
“Thinking bigger – that’s all I did,” I remember Rehana saying of her successes.
Thanks to Rehana, I’m now “thinking bigger,” too.