The Winner of MasterChef Canada Explains How a Terrible Accident Made Her a Pathological Saver

Wealthsimple is a whole new kind of investing service. This is the latest installment of our recurring series “Money Diaries,” where we ask interesting people to open up about the role money has played in their lives.

From a really early age, I realized that our family was different. I was four years old in 1994 when my family and I were in a pretty severe car accident. The four of us were heading up to a friend's cottage during one of those freak snowstorms in March. We hit a patch of black ice, our car flipped and hit a sign—and then an oncoming truck hit us. My father was killed. My brother and mom were both seriously injured, to the point where they both needed a lot of rehabilitation to be able to really do anything again. My mom had a special walker made for her so she could push it with her chin because her arms weren't useable. And my brother, who was six, had a head injury and spent a long time at SickKids hospital in Toronto. I was the only one who wasn’t seriously injured; younger kids’ bodies are kind of floppy, and it often happens that they survive accidents with less serious injuries.

Before the accident, my dad was a microbiologist for a pharmaceutical company, and my mom was home with us. So the main income earner in our household died, and then we had to figure out a new path really, really quickly. It was a doozy. But out of this horrible incident, my mom found her calling. My brother had been prescribed all these education programs to relearn how to read and write. My mother saw immediately how effective they were, and she decided to start a business working with children with acquired brain injuries and learning disabilities.

All of this definitely influenced the way that I see money. My mom was a single mother. She did very well, but I never wanted to financially impose on her. So I became a saver from a really early age. I remember getting one of those bankbooks with the cartoons on it when I was five. I always had friends who would take money and buy all the best toys; I would save my money.

My mind-set from when I was very young was that I needed to help out financially. In a way, this is what got me into the kitchen. After the accident, my nana came up and helped us for a good long time. Seeing that you can really help people and show them that you care simply by assisting in those daily life rituals, like cooking or cleaning up around the house, that made a real impression on me. But my nana wasn’t there forever. And since my mom was so busy all the time with my brother and starting her business, we ended up going out to dinner a lot. We must have been at the Lone Star in Pickering (I grew up outside of Toronto) three times a week which we enjoyed, because I’m not going to lie, my mom is not the best cook. So for me, preparing meals became the way I could contribute to the economics of the family because cooking at home saves so much money. At six, I started baking, and when I was 13, I took over making dinner for the family. I had this Italian chicken that I would do a lot. There was a three-month period when I would make crepes daily—I think my family got sick of them before I did.

I always worked. I worked at The Gap for years and years and years. I folded so many shirts. The denim wall was my nightmare. Anyone who would go and try to touch it, I'd jump in front of them and be like, “Can I help you?”

I had a double major in history and English at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, not far from where I grew up—I guess I went the route of wanting to be able to hold my own at a cocktail party. I thoroughly enjoyed it and knew I wanted to go back to school, so I took a year off to make some money for graduate school. That year, I worked three jobs and was pretty much saving half of my income for school. Every paycheque I'd get, I'd put half into savings and then have the rest to pay for life, really.

I got my master's at the University of Toronto in information technology because it’s a highly marketable degree. I was an insurance broker for five years before MasterChef Canada. Insurance is something that everybody always needs, but it's not something fun to say you do at a party. Someone’s always going to have a story about how much they hate insurance, how it’s too expensive. And I'm not going to stand there getting into the nitty-gritty of why it costs so much—it wouldn’t matter; they just want to yell at you about their insurance premium. My main goal has never been to make tons of money, but I always wanted to go into one of those smart jobs where you go to work 9 to 5, and you get your paycheque, and you can invest. I’ve always lived well within my means and saved. I don't go above and beyond. I don't like to rack up credit debt or anything like that. Working as a broker, I got paid twice a month. One paycheque each month would go toward rent and hydro and all of those fixed things. The other paycheque, I'd put most, if not all, into savings. And then eventually, once the savings got up to an OK amount, I would distribute it into a high-interest savings investment.

Sometimes I think I'm a bit too much of a realist. And truth is, since I was five, I have always been concerned about my mom's future and assumed that when she’s older I’ll be the one taking care of her. It’s all in my head—she’s always telling me, “Mary, I’m fine,” and she’s right—but I can’t help it. But there are times when I look at all the people my age who have just gone off for five months and lived in Vietnam or something, and I wonder. I never did anything like that.

There are a few times in the show where I joke, “I always made the responsible choice before in life.” Deciding to do the show, taking a two-month leave from my job, and potentially even having to quit—when I had to tell them, I was a sweat bucket, just the sweatiest, most nervous person in the world. I worked at a really small office, so if someone was sick or on vacation for a week, it took a toll. So me going in and being like, “Hey, I need two months off; is that OK with you?” was pretty difficult. But I basically felt: I have this opportunity, and I need a leave or I’m quitting because I can’t not do it. But I was lucky enough that my boss was only excited for me.

Before MasterChef Canada, I had never won anything in my life. I am not an athlete; I got “participation” ribbons as a kid. So the $100,000 I won on the show is fantastic. It gave me the ability to feel comfortable leaving my insurance job. But the trophy and the title were the really incredible part.

When I went to get the cheque from the MasterChef people, I had recently gotten engaged, and they said, “You’re not spending that all on the wedding, right?” and I said, “No, no, no!” I know you can spend that much on a wedding, but to me spending $100,000 on a party is the silliest idea in the world. We’re putting a little of it toward our honeymoon—a trip to Iceland, Paris, Rome, and Florence. But mostly it’s just sitting in a high-interest account. I’m definitely going to invest—some will go into my RRSP. But I’m not sure what we’ll do with it yet. I don’t think we’ll buy real estate in Toronto. My husband and I aren’t really condo people. Condo kitchens are all very small with not a lot of counter space.

My family has a cottage up in Muskoka, Ontario, which has been in the family for 150 years. One of the neighboring cottages is going up for sale, and we are contemplating buying that. We can use it as an income property. Even if we moved to New York or somewhere across Canada someday, we’d always be able to go back to that place. We’d be buying it for our whole life. That’s what we’re entertaining right now.

As told to Andrew Goldman exclusively for Wealthsimple. We make smart investing simple and affordable.

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