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These 10 revelations helped me rethink my finances in my 20s

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We often get questions from people about whether they have enough money at their age. 

These are questions like “how much money should I have at 25?”, “I don’t have 100k at 30 will I be okay?” 

My humble opinion is that when you’re young, how much money you have in your bank account doesn’t matter as much as the ways you think about money.

That’s why instead of putting the focus on how much I saved each year, this article is about the major life lessons in my twenties and how I came to learn them.

If you’re reading all these when you’re in university, then you’re in a great position to avoid most of my mistakes.  Because learning from experience sucks balls. 

Now, before you continue, I want to make things clear that this article isn’t “do all these things and be rich, but more of “here are some helpful things you realise while you try to be financially free”.

“Every $100,000 saved is one month not working”

At my first job in 2014, I realised that indeed the adults were right and “money is hard to earn.”  The transition from being a student to salaryman was hard, and I sought the fastest way out of working life possible. 

(These led me to these life changing articles by BudgetBabe, the Straits Times and  the The Motley Fool.)

I figured that for every $100,000 saved, I could generate maybe $4,000 in passive income. Each $4,000 would mean one month without working. To stop working for six months, I’d need $600,000. 

Six months off every year. Wouldn’t that be amazing? 

I decided to take on as much freelance work as possible to help me reach that first $100,000. 

“Working till old age was something I’d like to avoid”

My mom had a crippling stroke in 2014 which left her unable to bathe, eat or walk by herself. She was 59. This was an event that shaped my perspective on life tremendously.

Armed with nothing but two PSLE passes, mom had worked immensely hard for 40 years. She hustled hard to give her kids the best life possible, and long after we grew up, so insisted on working because she wanted additional financial security. 

Now, she would never go on holidays or those morning jogs she so enjoyed for the rest of her life. 

Seeing this made me realise I wanted to quit the rat race with enough of my health intact. This also pushed me towards the F.I.R.E movement. 

The idea was to secure financial freedom early, then work at a leisurely pace doing work that made me happy all the way till I die. 

“If you’re not wealthy, you might have to work for shitty people.” 

My earliest side hustle was to work at a hostel on weekends for about $6 an hour. I earned about $48 per weekend. 

The pay was miserable but I had no other skills. The boss monitored staff through a CCTV, verbally abused his staff and was generally a rich entitled brat. (He could afford the hostel because his dad had given him some seed funding.) 

This made me see firsthand that the poor will always be at the mercy of the rich. So I swore to become wealthy enough that I could always choose who I worked for. 

“Longer hours don’t mean higher pay.”

Towards the end of 2014, I joined the advertising industry, famed for its long working hours. My colleagues were fun, the clients were not terrible, and I had a great boss, but pulling multiple all-nighters made me discover the law of diminishing returns. 

Whether or not I worked 8, 10 or 16 hours, I was only going to get $3,000 per month because that’s how most companies work. Even if your boss wants to give you an increment, some HQ office in Paris will say, “no, he needs to follow the progression like everyone else.” 

So it simply didn’t make sense to spend too much time at work after a certain point.

Afterwards, I made it a point to leave at 9 pm on the dot everyday. Not exactly 9-5, but it was a start.

“Your day job isn’t the only way to make money”

I tried my best to establish a reputation as a copywriter who was fast, effective and hardworking. This needed a lot of work, but eventually paid off. 

About a year after this, people started approaching me for last minute jobs. The deadlines were tight, but they paid really well – some up to $5,000. 

Was I going to pass on a $5,000 job when I only earned $3,000?

Hell no. I burnt weekends, weeknights and endured multiple rounds of client changes to get things done. 

It was then that I found out people can actually earn more from side hustles than their dayjob.

“When you start from zero, building capital is more important than making the best investments” 

In 2015, I plonked my first $5,000 into the stock market. I bought Raffles Medical based on faulty logic that medical companies would always do well.  

Perhaps because it was my first time, I spent hours monitoring the stock market like a hawk and had sleepless nights when the price dipped. Eventually I realised I had no business to be actively investing when I had hardly done my research. 

The time that I spent fussing and stressing over a few hundred dollars? I could easily have worked on several freelance articles to earn money that was a sure thing.

I sold all my stocks and went into index investing, focusing on improving my earning power instead. 

“Challenge the norms of society and there will be rewards” 

I started cycling to work in 2016. It was really awesome. I got a lot fitter and saved some money – but at the same time I felt like a deviant in a society where everyone shunned cycling and worshipped the car-driving executive.

Admittedly, I didn’t save a lot of money from this exercise. I wasn’t going to buy a car anyway, and I spent $1,000 a year on public transport, max. I could have jogged to lose weight, which was free of charge, too. 

But other than helping me save time by combining fitness and commuting into one, this exercise helped me see that certain traditions/norms in society – such as car ownership – were either no longer practical or a huge waste of money. 

TL;DR: If you want to achieve anything quickly, be prepared to do the things others are unwilling to do. 

“We live in Singapore. There’s no avoiding money in relationships”

I’ve had my fair share of failed relationships in my 20s. And I’d say many of them imploded because of my attitudes towards work, retirement and money. 

Let me first say that I totally understand where they’re coming from. For most people, the idea of early financial independence is really attractive. But the lifestyle change it involves, is often unacceptable.  

Most people, for example, prize their weekend cafe-hopping excursions or staycations. Dining out in a nice restaurant regularly is important, as are gym memberships and new clothes. And they’re not wrong at all for wanting so.

However, pursuing early financial independence means scaling back significantly on some of these things in your 20s. The more you can scale back, the faster you can attain it. But of course, doing so might mean a partner feels neglected or unwanted. 

What I got from the entire episode? If you’re after a serious relationship, it’s important to talk about financial goals. 

It also made me realise how hard it was to find a partner that was also financially ‘woke’. 

“To escape outdated ideas of the previous generations, move the hell out.”

2017 was the year I rented a room for $700 a month from a friend. While this cost me close to $9,000 that year, I could now make life decisions without the influence of my parents –  who had some pretty outdated notions. 

Some of them you might be familiar with: 

  • “Give your parents 20% allowance to prove your filial piety.” 
  • “You must have kids before 30”
  • “Why haven’t you bought a car yet?” 
  • “We must invite 3,000 people to your wedding” 
  • “You must earn more than your wife.”
  • “If you don’t do XXX, what would our relatives think of us?”

My opinion is that some Singaporeans let their parents dictate their lives simply by living under their roof. Some of the decisions made by the older generation are outdated, expensive and perhaps the worst – irreversible.

But here’s the kicker: It is more costly to have an obsolete mindset than it is to pay rent.  

“Financial freedom is not a race with other people, it’s a marathon you run with yourself”

Since starting Woke Salaryman last year, I’ve come across so many fascinating and inspiring people at different stages of their journey.  At the same time, I’ve listened to enough cases of ruinous financial habits to write a book about it. 

I’ve noticed a tendency for people to compare themselves to ‘financial influencers’, a group of people of which TWS is considered part of. 

IMO, that’s really unhealthy because many times, bloggers and content creators don’t talk about the circumstances that helped them achieve their sky-high savings goals. 

Either that, or they have talked about it, but people have forgotten. 

So I’m going to go out on a limb and say this: 

I managed to amass significant savings at a young age because I was fortunate enough to be born with several advantages. 

  • I started out with no debt. 
  • My parents adequately prepared for retirement (and even a stroke)
  • And I’m part of the majority race in Singapore. 

If you’re not any of these, chances are you’re going to have a harder time. But just because you only saved 30k by 30 doesn’t mean you’re any less capable than me – it just means you’ve had more to overcome.  

But you know what? That shouldn’t prevent you from trying.

Think about it: there are spoilt rich kids out there with all the advantages, but are still totally reliant on their wealthy parents. 

And there are people far less privileged than me who have done really, really, really well for themselves.

At the end of the day, it’s about mindset and taking a step in the right direction. 

And it does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.

Stay Woke, Salaryman. 

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Illustrations by melzlm! Her insta, fb.

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25 replies to “These 10 revelations helped me rethink my finances in my 20s

  1. Every words is suits in my financial journey today.Thx for this kind article don’t be hard to yourself. Focus on your goals while learning and enjoying life.

      1. Just a quick question, recently having just bought a new house, im looking to get my parents to stay back with me, as I fear that one day something would happen to them and I have not been spending enough time with them (because of mishaps like what happened to your mom, sorry to hear that bro!)

        But in this sense, it might seem contradictory abit with 2 of your points by the way one which is moving out and away to try and manage your own life and the other which i’m going back to is where i get my parents to suddenly be very involved in my life again

      2. Don’t feel like you have to follow our recommendations to the tee. I think it’s fantastic that you have a good relationship with your folks and you want to live with them and have them as an important part of your daily/weekly life.

        The whole point of being woke is so you have enough social and financial mobility to focus on the things that are important to you.

        If you’re good with it, your parents are good with it, and you have the ability to make the adjustment, do it bro.

  2. Nice article Woke Salaryman! Came in SG from Msia when I was 23 for work. After 2 years of working and saving, I chanced upon a property investment group. Learnt how to buy property in Singapore, then at the ripe age of 25 bought my own investment property that generates 300sgd per month (if renovated will bring in a min of 1500sgd). It’s a faster way to gain financial independence with a salary less than 3k (would only need 2 income generating properties). Financial independence to me is nearly passive income on par with my current salary. That way I have a choice to quit anytime and be ok with it.

  3. Putting out good stuff as usual. Keep up the good work! Thank you for your articles. I’m a uni student right now and I feel that thinking about these made me more responsible and I could talk to my bf about it (thankfully, we are on the same page).

    1. Thank goodness your partner is on the same page. It can be such a drainer when you’re not aligned financially, especially sucky if everything else about your relationship is amazing. D:

  4. A great read and reminder.
    I squandered the first 10 years not taking financial seriously and was content to live hand to mouth monthly; pub and bar hopping weekly, make impulsive purchase frequently, pays the bare minimum on my credit cards, until the responsibly hit me like a truck.
    Only scramble to learn and manage my finance at the age of 28. After more than a decade later, I made a career out of consulting people how to get woke on their finance, so they can avoid the pitfalls I went through.

  5. Your sharings really relevant, especially the para on romantic relationships. Lost a significant other partly due to my extreme minimalistic expenditure. After working for 4 years with an very average salary, finally saved enough for a 1 bedder.

  6. Hey thanks for sharing! Most of the points resonated with me. Especially the part about living with parents in their mid 60s who have outdated financial mindset. And unfortunately, they do not have enough for their retirement so I become their retirement plan. I ever asked them to save for their retirement, even a tiny sum but they told me that I should be taking care of them when they are old.

    I am now in my mid 30s, getting married this year. My BTO is also on the way. And I want to have a kid before I hit 40. Soon, my dad will have to stop working. I will have my parents and kid(s) to look after. This is going to be financially taxing for me. I have a younger sister to share the responsibility but she has lower earning power.

    What’s your advice for a sandwiched generation like me?

    1. Hey Gernis,

      I’m sorry to hear about your situation.

      Man, there are no easy answers here. Parents with old mindsets are incredibly difficult to change. I’d say that you have to decide what is best for both YOU and your parents (I didn’t include your kid because they don’t exist yet). This sounds straightforward and ‘duh’, but keep in mind what is ‘best’ for your parent might not be what they like.

      I’ve seen lots of people make crippling financial decisions because they were afraid to say ‘no’ to their parents. Like selling their condo at a loss to fund mom’s extravagant lifestyle. Allowing their parents to continue on their gambling habit. In these scenarios, you need to cut off an arm to save the body. The younger generation always have priority.

      If the old Japanese people at the Fukushima (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13598607) could understand this, I don’t see why Singaporean boomers should be any different.

      That said, your scenario isn’t that extreme, so you definitely shouldn’t cut off your parents.

      As a start, I’d rent out all the spare rooms in both your existing HDB flat (a lot more attractive than the leasebuy back scheme) and your new BTO (ask for permission from HDB!), that should bring in some spare income and unlock value stuck in the HDB flat. Your parents might protest, but honestly, we need to talk about how their actions have 10, 20, 30 years ago have consequences.

      This includes not planning for retirement.

      Children are there not to be your safety net.

      Cheers, hope this helps

  7. Yo guys, I worked my a** off for 25+ years trying to look good and young and feeling gorgeous my whole life in Malaysia. Now reaching my mid 40’s by July, average looking Chinese, still single, available and NSA, I am stuck half way far from being financial freedom. I can bluntly put the blame on my want for own suite in a famous locality of KL or my parents for not moving to KL in the eighties when they had a choice. I realise lately I can actually commit to be dad’s caretaker for life (mum was gone) and relieve my sibling’s burden so long dad promises a roof above my head forever. I may be silly to even go there because dad is happy and living with his lady friend now. Even more silly, to burst my own bubble, I lost the job that allowed me to perform and slack in balance I prayed will last me till 50’s.

    Thanks for sharing your own experience based on a Singaporean boomer landscape though. It makes me review the becoming of my finance in past two decades and gives me the shot to aim at earlier retirement plan within next two decades or much shorter tenure. I will work harder on my saving and making my passive income.

  8. very timely. i spent the 1st decade of my working life without any knowledge on investing. salary comes and goes.

    im gettting wiser now that i have a few investments. hopefully many will learn from you.

  9. Interesting stuff you said there. I can relate to what you did. However, you should have not mention and sort of bad mouthed your parents here, though I know for you it’s the truth. You mentioned, they worked hard for 40 years, just think about that.

    1. If we don’t acknowledge our parents mistakes, we cannot learn from their mistakes. Nobody is bad mouthing anyone, it’s very normal for the older generation to cling on to outdated notions. I am well aware my parents have worked for 40 years – but it doesn’t discount them from a critical analysis of what they could have done better.

  10. Hi.

    Based on the above assumption, one will need to have $1.2 million in order not to work for the rest of his/her life. I think that this will be a good and excellent target to focus on.

    WTK

  11. IAM from Africa Uganda but l like your blogs.because what ever your posting here , are the finicial questions l had for my self.thanks

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