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I was an air stewardess for 15 months and saved $58,000

TWS: This article is a contribution by one of our readers to the Broke Salaryman program and reflects on the experience on one flight attendant. YMMV based on your privilege, life philosophy and values towards money.  Personal finance is not a competition and TWS advises you not to peg the value of a human being to their net worth. Read that front to back, one more time.

In 2018, I decided to become an air stewardess. I had graduated earlier that year with an arts degree – and being a junior designer didn’t pay quite enough. Especially when I had a student debt to service.  

People don’t usually associate the job as one for savers, but I’ve managed to amass $58,000 after about 15 months of working. 

Whether or not you’re still working as a flight attendant or are thinking of joining, this is what you need to be prepared for. 

Yup, the money is pretty decent…

On average, I could bring in approximately $4,500 – $5,000 a month. That amount of money was pretty sizeable for a fresh grad, considering an arts degree will probably get you around $3,100 in the job market. 

To avoid overspending, I transferred a portion of my salary to a high yield savings account every payday so that I don’t see the money; and worked around with whatever’s left remaining. 
After getting into the habit of saving for about six months, I realised I was saving an average of $3,500 per month.

I had a solid side hustle

Apart from being paid decently, I had another way of earning some extra income.

A short backgrounder: We receive our roster two months in advance and we often swap among ourselves for more desirable destinations or for off-days that we have personal matters to attend to. 

The market rate for ‘buying’ an off day costs between $150 for a KL turnaround, to $400 for a HK turnaround. Yup, that means on top of the work pay you’ll receive from the company for doing the flight, you’re able to get an additional $150-$400.

Selling off days was my side hustle before Covid19, and I got an extra $250 – $500 per month from this. This was roughly what the going rates were, before COVID-19 hit. Once again, YMMV. 

The Duty You Do For Others You get:
Kuala Lumpur  $150
Hongkong  $400
Bangkok  $250
Jakarta  $200
Bangalore  $400
Manila  $350
*Standbys* – Being prepared to be called up to report for duty at any time of the day, to anywhere, in the event that a colleague reported sick or didn’t turn up for work. $300 – $350

 

I was effectively paid to travel

One of the best perks of being an aircrew? 

Being able to travel to various exotic destinations for free. London, New York, Milan, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, San Francisco, you name it.

Once when we had six days to burn in Los Angeles, a colleague and I booked a flight to Vegas during the layover and had a mini vacation. 

We visited the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and various attractions in the national park all in for less than $700, when a direct flight from Singapore to the US would have already cost more than $1,000 for a regular adult. 

Factoring in a $1,100 meal allowance, I actually was paid $400 to travel! 

 

But there are many reasons why I found it hard to save:

For starters, our income fluctuates depending on the flights we are assigned, so it is important to save more on months that we have more lucrative routes, to make up for the shortfall on months with shorter operating patterns. 

Next up, getting paid four times a month demands an insane amount of discipline.  It’s easy to forget the importance of saving when you’re always getting a constant stream of money. Most salarymen live paycheck to paycheck. Many aircrew live week to week. It’s instant gratification on steroids. 

Holding on to a sizable amount of foreign currency. Though most developed countries now accept card payments, it is important to carry some cash with you as it’s more convenient when it comes to splitting bills and tipping (a common practice in western countries). And the very fact that certain attractions accept only cash. Imagine every other payday you have to withdraw the cash to exchange for foreign currencies for your subsequent trips.

Also VERY IMPORTANT to note: the bulk of your ‘income’’ comes from meal allowances. Being on annual leave means losing that portion of income. I remember my very first block of annual leave of 10 days left me drawing less than 60% of my usual payslip. 

You don’t really get to build up your CPF. Only our basic salary and hourly rates (approx $1.2k and $10 per hour respectively) are CPF deductible, meaning, our employer only pays 17% on those 2 components and not on meal allowance. This adds up to approximately $500. So the amount of our take-home wage VS CPF contribution is actually very disproportionate. 

Fewer benefits and iffy employment practices: If you want to have kids for example, there are no maternity or paternity benefits. You need to resign when you leave the job, and apply as ‘returning crew’ when you rejoin – effectively restarting your job progression. This obviously affects women more, as you’ll have to leave when you’re pregnant.  

Also, you can be barred from flying if you bust a certain BMI, or don’t look ‘presentable.’ These include stuff beyond your control – like acne breakouts. 

Finally, job progression is also dismal: We sign contracts of five years each and unless we get promoted, the maximum time we can stay in service is four contracts, or twenty years. 

Each promotion grants you one more contract, but promotion is notoriously difficult, with many crew taking 11-13 years just to go up one rank.

Stewardess 4 contracts, 20 years
Lead stewardess 5 contracts, 25 years
Chief stewardess/Inflight Supervisors 6 contracts, 30 years


Now, if all these sound daunting enough, there’s also non-organisational reasons many aircrew remain broke af. Here are some that I remember. 

Expensive socialising 


You’ll be outcast for not joining the others, especially if you are new. Often, socialising involves expensive meals where people ‘order to share’, and the unequal splitting of bills – resulting in you paying for stuff you didn’t even eat.

I’ve been reprimanded by a chief steward before for not being ‘spontaneous’ for skipping out a ‘bonding session’ over alcohol. His claim was that acts like these actually affected the morale and rapport of my fellow crew members. 

And ladies and gentlemen, there lies the importance of hanging out in bars late into the night and paying for overpriced $7 apple juice. 

Addiction to luxury goods

While I saved up furiously to accumulate over $50,000 within 1 ½ years, many of my peers have spent their hard-earned money buying luxury handbags at outlet malls all over the world. 

On my first rostered trip to Europe, I followed a couple of seniors around to shop for luxury bags. One of them asked why I didn’t buy luxury items. When I replied that I wasn’t interested in such things, another actually mocked me by saying “maybe she wants to save 100k.”

 

‘Saving Money’ Backfiring 

Most goods available in Singapore are imported and hence carry a hefty price tag. When we travel to the countries of origin, the prices are much more attractive, be it skincare and cosmetics (especially for products we use for work like hairspray, nail polish, makeup and hand cream, to name a few.), food and snacks, supplements, or other commodities. Hence, we tend to overcompensate by purchasing more than we need and hoarding the items, occasionally to a point they got expired. 

As a result, we wasted more money on unused products, than paying for the price marked up locally; talk about irony. I once met a crew that spent so much money in a day till her card won’t go through as her bank thought she got robbed; she had to call them to authorize her subsequent transaction.

 

Occupational hazards that turn into expensive habits


Being an aircrew changes your lifestyle habits in many ways. For instance, we are not allowed to take public transport when in uniform.  Hence, most of us will cab or grab to work, to save the hassle of having to change into and out of uniforms when reporting to and from work.

Over time, it’s easy to get into this habit of cabbing everywhere – even when you’re out of uniform. (EDIT: To save money, I struck up a deal with a GrabHitch Driver who would send me to the airport at half price!)

Also – perhaps because tap water has a higher amount of chlorine on planes (for sanitary purposes), we also develop an unhealthy addiction to bottled water.  You’ll find us buying bottled water even when there are perfectly ok and free water dispensers around. Note: The chlorine isn’t a health hazard for normal travellers who fly 3-4 times a year, but if you drink it every day, it will be.

Now, you can expect all of these little costs to add up in the long term.

 

Even before you join, you need an exit strategy

You might think I regret my decision to be an aircrew after everything I’ve written, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

This is one job I never find myself dragging out of bed to go to. The opportunity to be paid to travel in your 20s is insane.

That said, the golden era of aircrew is over.  Salaries in the industry have stagnated for the last 15 years, and even our highly lucrative meal allowance seems to be on the decline. 

Recently, a senior told me a trip to London used to pay $1,000 in meal allowance. Today, it’s $480.

My take? This isn’t a career path to stay long term. My initial plan was to stay for five years, collect the $10,000 gratuity (used to be $15,000 back in 2009!), and make life moves from there.

This is also why I saved intensely – I most certainly will have to take a pay cut when I leave, but I’ll have some money to tide me through that. 

 

Conclusion:

TWS: Being an aircrew allows you to power up your earning power relatively easily at a young age, but you must also recognise that you have a max of 30 years in this job. We think that this is a job ideal for people in their early 20s.

In addition, earning $5,000 in your twenties is glamorous, but it gradually loses its shine when you enter your 30s and 40s. Especially if you take on more financial responsibilities. 

That said, because you start early, you’d have quite a big headstart vs your peers.

Assuming you could invest $2,000 a month at 5% p.a, you could accumulate approximately $300,000 by the end of a 10-year tenure.  Given that you could technically start this job at 18, that means $300,000 at 28. Not shabby at all. 

If you bump it up to $3,500 like this writer, that amount would be $540,000. Not a bad amount to have in your 30s, though your CPF would still be lacking. 

The idea here is to build a strong financial foundation before you proceed to the next phase of your life.  That way, you could invest in yourself by either going back to school to get certified or start a business. 

But first, you got to get your money right.

And pray that COVID-19 doesn’t clip your wings. 

Stay Woke, Salaryman.

[PS: Join our telegram group so social media algorithms won’t keep us apart.]

 

DRAWINGS BY: JUN YEO

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9 replies to “I was an air stewardess for 15 months and saved $58,000

  1. Well done.. there nothing wrong for saving up.
    My batchgirl mocked at me too saying that I carry my cash in plastic bags when I told her to save up and not splurge on luxury bags 😅

  2. Amazing story and I am impressed by the self-discipline and determination the author has in saving up despite the peer pressure and other temptations to do otherwise. I am puzzled about the comment regarding high chlorine levels in tap water and also about this being less of a health hazard for people who travel 3-4 times a year? Not sure what one has to do with the other.

  3. It’s important to have a meaningful n thrifty lifestyle while being an attendant. It will be noble that good intentions were shared for ppl who are contemplating a career as an air crew. However, the key is never burn the bridge after you’d crossed it.

  4. Well done!

    For the small remuneration you earn for writing this article, you’ve just opened a greater set of issues and can of worms for the current cabin crew.

    Management is definitely going take extra steps now to clamp down on the changing of flights.

    If you don’t understand the importance of changing of flights because you were plainly going to benefit financially out of it, there are some who need to do so for various commitments without having to utilize their annual leave.

    As if the covid situation isn’t hard enough for the cabin crew, it has to be a self-righteous someone from the inside who couldn’t bottle it up and had to tell the whole world about her “journey”.

    Now it’s become jeopardy.

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