Long read: Understanding the life cycle of a typical Singaporean

Update as of 31 August 2023: This content was sponsored by MoneyOwl at the time of publication (9 November 2021). MoneyOwl has just announced on 31 August 2023 that it is winding down its financial advisory business and all commercial activities will cease by December 31, 2023. To find out more, visit their microsite here.


Skip to the life stages


If an archetypical life cycle of a Singaporean appeared in a science textbook, here’s what it would look like.

Get married in your 20s.

Buy a HDB flat and poop out children by your 30s.

Raise them till their late teens, then retire in bliss during your 60s after collecting your CPF.

Whether or not you’re a fan of this life cycle or not, there are some good things you cannot deny about this life cycle. For starters, it’s tried and tested. Many people have attempted this before with great success.

Secondly, knowing precisely what and when to expect financially makes it relatively straightforward to plan for. And as you know, failing to plan is planning to fail.

Since it’s undoubtedly the path most people will take, we think there’s merit in an article breaking down all the key ages, as well as all the financial priorities you need to tackle at each stage.

This article aims to help you do two things:

  1. Acts as an informal benchmark to see how you’re doing compared to ‘the norm’
  2. Act as a guide to decide whether the ‘textbook answer’ life is right for you.

In reality though, life is a lot more like an open-ended question. You need to remember that personal finance is very much personal.

Remember –  these are guidelines, not deadlines. You make your own decisions.

The cusp of adulthood (16 – 21)

The first time you might start dealing with money is when you approach the second half of your teens.

After you’ve embarked on tertiary education, comes the time of your life that you might start to have monetizable skills.

Most individuals are very broke at this phase, with little to no wealth to their name. They generally are dependent on their parents.

If you are serious about getting a financial head start, you might want to try working or starting a business to get a short introduction to capitalism, and the price of independence.

However, in our opinion, your priorities should still be to:

  • Finish your education to maximise the opportunities available to you
  • Acquire lucrative and relevant skills that will allow you to be remunerated well
  • Grow your social networks, and in turn, your social capital


Notable milestones:

At 15-16. you can technically start working, but you can work no more than 6 hours a day (there are other limitations we won’t go fully into). Of course, these days with the internet there are many other opportunities for less conventional employment.

At 16, the government’s Dependants’ Protection Scheme kicks in. If you pass away or suffer from total permanent disability, your family will receive a payout to help them tide through things.

At 16.5 years old, males can opt to do National Service early under the Voluntary Early Enlistment Scheme (VEES)

18 is also when you can start being an aircrew, or sign on to the Singapore Armed Forces – both popular early career choices which can give you a good financial head start

The noob adult (21 – 25)

A marathon is rarely decided in the initial seconds, but there’s no denying that the start is important.

This is one of the most crucial phases for a young Singaporean financially, as it sets up your foundations. We recommend to continue living like a broke student, and building a strong financial foundation.

During this stage, the following financial priorities will take up most of your time.

  • Paying off university debt (~$25,000 – $40,000) – this is the first large debt you will encounter. The interest rate isn’t high at around 4-5%, but it isn’t low either.
  • Building an emergency fund (At least 3 months of expenses or six months salary recommended)
  • Getting basic insurance coverage (we recommend getting Health and Critical Illness first.)
  • Start investing

This is also the stage where many of your long-lost friends start ringing you up as they start their careers as a Financial Adviser.

Our suggestion is to make sure they are competent and committed to being a financial adviser before you commit long term to them. Basing financial decisions on ‘friendship’ is often suboptimal.

You can also opt for a fee-based financial adviser to reduce any potential conflicts of interest.


Notable milestones:  

21 is when you can start drinking, smoking and gambling, all of which, if left unchecked, have the potential to wreak havoc on your finances and health. Best not to develop expensive addictions.

Finally, 21 is the earliest you can manage your own money via opening a banking or investment account.

22 is the earliest university for female graduates to find employment. For males, this is 24.

The less noob adult (25 – 32)



Still reeling from paying off your university loan? Don’t hold your breath. A wave of big-ticket items are heading your way.

This period is likely the one that is filled with the most upfront costs, making it one of the most stressful, financially.

It is also one where you’ll make big commitments that you will be held accountable to for the next decade(s) ahead.

This is what the typical Singaporean should be ready to pay for: 

  • Downpayment for a home (~$40,000 – $120,000, halved if you share with a partner)
  • Renovation costs (~$20,000 – $50,000, halved if you share with a partner)
  • Wedding (~$10,000 – $100,000)
  • Honeymoon ($2,000 – $20,000)
  • Relook your insurance coverage; so that in the event you die, your spouse won’t have too much debt to pay, or you won’t have too much opportunity cost lost if any medical emergencies cause you to stop working

As you can see, the ranges on the above-mentioned list are quite large. A wedding can be $10,000. It can also be $100,000.

For that reason, it’s important to understand your own financial situation and goals before choosing to spend money; it can be easy to overspend on things, especially if you are driven by FOMO and peer pressure.

It’s also worth considering your approach to debt as well.

If you’re going to take a loan for your home, ensure that your monthly loan repayment is affordable and it’s comfortable enough to finance over at least 5 years (minimum occupancy period).

A good rule of thumb is to keep your debt servicing ratio within 40% of your income.

There are generally very few big-ticket items after this point, unless it’s health emergencies or conscious lifestyle choices.

However, it doesn’t mean that things get cheaper; your recurring costs will just become larger and larger instead.


Notable ages:

  • 28 is the last year you can sign on as a regular in the military
  • At 30, CareShield Life, a long-term disability plan, starts to take effect
  • You might start to feel mysterious back pains and slow recovery from hangovers at this age

Full-fledged adulthood (32- 39)

It is unclear when Singaporeans first reach full adulthood, but we can confirm that by the time you are 35, you are no longer considered ‘youth’.

The National Youth Council set that standard. Not us.

Unless you’re having kids (more on this later), there isn’t much you need to do at this stage, other than the usual personal finance strategies we always write about.

Things to keep doing at this age:

  • Stay invested through the ups and downs
  • Do not inflate your lifestyle blindly
  • Maximise your earning power, make hay while the sun shines
  • Upgrade your insurance protection if you have upgraded your lifestyle

Optional quest: Have a baby

While Singaporeans used to breed rapidly in the early 1960s, those days are long over. Many of us have decided to not reproduce in response to what we perceive as skyrocketing costs-of-living.

Combined with obligations to care for their parents, having offspring makes having children a daunting task for many Singaporeans.

Estimates for having a child range from as low as $230,000 to as high as $600,000, spread over the next 18 years.

Once again, it can be easy to overspend on your child just because others are doing so – exercise your own judgement.

Additional financial priorities for parents: 

  • Saving up for the first year’s ‘startup’ costs for an infant ($20,000 – $30,000)
  • Get maternity insurance
  • Basic insurance coverage for your child
  • Consider whether you really need to buy a car (if you do buy, do consider buying second-hand)
  • Consider whether you need to hire a helper to look after the kid
  • Relook your insurance policies to account for the costs of providing for your child’s daily expenses and tertiary education in the event of your death/illness.
    • Set up a will to ensure the insurance money goes to your kids
    • Appoint a guardianship for your kids in case you ded


Notable ages

  • Fertility for women generally declines after the age of 35
  • Stay-home parents will also face a decline in income
  • You can buy a HDB flat at 35 years old as a single

Becoming an official uncle or aunty – 40s

If you haven’t been doing it already, now is the time to turn your attention to the largest expense you will face in your lifetime: Your retirement.

Depending on your lifestyle, this could range from anywhere between $450,000 to $1,200,000 in today’s money. We say ‘today’s money’ because it’s likely that the figures will increase in the future due to inflation.

If that number sounds intimidating, do keep in mind that:

  • You’ll have some money in your CPF to contribute to that number
    • Basic Retirement Sum
    • Full Retirement Sum
    • Enhanced Retirement Sum
  • You have about two decades more to prepare for retirement

The other big cost that might come up would be your parent’s retirement. Particularly if they have no retirement plans of their own. There are many costs involved here.

  • Making sure they are covered for health and long term care insurance
  • Ensuring they have basic expenses; a 2019 estimate suggested that an elderly couple will need about $2,351 to have a decent standard of living in retirement.
  • Deciding whether you will need a nursing home or helper to assist them in day to day activities
  • You might potentially need to top up their CPF

Finally, if you do have children, this is also a good reminder to start thinking about to what extent you want to fund their tertiary education (it costs $25,000 – $40,000 now, but you may need to increase that number to factor in inflation).

Of course, this is optional, and we’ll file it under ‘good-to-haves’.


Notable ages:

1 in 4 Singaporeans above the age of 40 has at least one chronic illness. Big yikes. Remember to have a fitness regime in place.

After 48, salaries of most people start to enter a decline

The end game  – beyond your 40s 

If you play your cards right, you’d have the choice to wind down work in your 60s.  That said, there are still some stuff you need to do:

  • Estate planning: Make no mistake, you will die at some point. Doing stuff like your CPF Nomination, a will and appoint a trusted someone to make decisions for you in the event you are incapable of doing so (Google: Lasting Power of Attorney). Better get this done when you’re still lucid.
  • What to do with parents’ wealth? At some point, you might inherit a significant sum of money from your now-deceased parents. It’s important to plan what to do with the amount instead of being reckless with it.
  • Do you want to downsize your home? This is worth serious consideration if your children (if any) have moved out. A smaller home is easier to maintain, and you can use any sales proceeds to enjoy a less stressful retirement.
  • Are you adequately protected? The longer you remain healthier, the less you will need for retirement.It’s generally still a good idea to have your integrated shield plan (IP), though they will constantly become more expensive (up to $2-5k per year in premiums).That said, if you have no more income and no dependents to look after, you can consider forgoing your life insurance.
  • Having insurance for long term disability income in the event where something happens to you. Getting older = weaker body = the chances of injuring yourself will be higher.  And even if you live a longer life, you may not be living them healthily. Lucky for us, Singapore is still doing ok in this regard for now.

Notable ages:

-Your CPF Retirement Account is created at 55

– CPF Life kicks in from 65, giving you monthly income until you pass away

– The Dependant Protection Scheme lapses at 65; if you die your family won’t be covered under this anymore

– The official retirement age is 62, but you can be re-employed till 67. These are set to be increased by one year (retire at 63, reemployed till 68) in 2022.

– 75 is the latest you can be covered with an Integrated Shield Plan

– 81.5 is the age males are expected to live till, 86.1 for females

– You ded, congratulations!

How to plan for all your financial goals?

Planning for your goals depends on two things.

1)  How long before you need this money (Investment Horizon)
2)  Whether or not you can afford to lose this money and stomach any short-term dips in the market (risk appetite).

If you factor in investment horizon alone, it kinda looks like this:

Investment Horizon Where to put your money
1-5 years (short term investments) High Yield Savings account, short term Endowment policies, Fixed Deposits, Money Market Funds, Government and investment grade corporate bonds
5-9 years (medium term investments) A mix of the two boxes above and below this one.
>10 years (long term investments) Individual stocks, Unit Trusts, ETFs, CPF SA, Real Estate, REITS

However, once you factor in risk appetite, it looks like this:

Investment Horizon Where to put your money Is there any chance of making a loss? *
*This is how TWS approaches it
1-5 years (short term investments) High Yield Savings account, short term Endowment policies, Fixed Deposits, Money Market Funds Low chance
5-9 years (medium term investments) A mix of the two boxes above and below this one. Depends
>10 years (long term investments) Individual stocks, Unit Trusts, ETFs, CPF SA, Real Estate, REITS Yes, significant chance (except CPF SA)

Our take is that if you absolutely cannot afford to lose money, you should opt for safer (but often less lucrative) investments.

But investing in something safer is definitely better than not investing at all.

Life is full of shifting targets  

What we’ve laid out in this article is what the typical ‘Singaporean dream’ costs like in 2021. However, it’s important to realise that goals – both mainstream and personal – change with time.

After all, it wasn’t too long ago the ‘Singaporean dream’ was owning the 5Cs – a concept that is now all but irrelevant.

Similarly, you might want to retire at 40 child-free and on a rural farm in New Zealand, but accidents can (and have) happened. Just look at COVID throwing (and continuing to throw) all our plans into disarray.

For that reason, your finances are rarely ever ‘set and forget’.

Make no mistake: things shift. Plans change.

We adapt.

Stay woke, salaryman.

Liked it? Take a second to support thewokesalaryman on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

3 replies to “Long read: Understanding the life cycle of a typical Singaporean

Leave a Reply

close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star