30 With Zero Savings: 5 Money Habits That I Wish I Knew When I Was Younger
STORY: Farhan Shafie
31 January 2023
What did you imagine your life to be like at 30 years old? Well, I pictured mine to be one of relative luxury, with lots of travelling and a celebrity following as a famous rapper or celebrated author. As I hit the milestone in 2022, I made peace with the fact that my life didn’t exactly pan out that way.
Sure, I did end up carving a career in writing that I’m proud of, released a few singles that made it to local radio and even travelled regularly in my 20s. But there was one sobering fact that brought me screeching back to reality; I had absolutely no savings in my bank account on my 30th birthday. Zilch. Nada.
But before you draw your pitchforks and start castigating my lifestyle choices (don’t worry my parents are way ahead of you) there are a few mitigating factors. I spent the bulk of my late 20s paying off my student loans.
Coming from a low-income family, I had to support my younger brothers through school as soon as I started working. So it was very much a case of living paycheck to paycheck. But my CPF account is pretty healthy so that still counts for something, right?
The honest truth is that cash on hand might have been scarce due to my financial situation, but I was cavalier with my money when I should have been thriftier. While I do have regrets about how I managed my finances in the past, the first step of change is acceptance. Here are 5 money habits I’m incorporating right now that I wished I learnt as an impressionable youth. Hopefully, they can also guide you in your financial journey as well.
1. Don’t #YOLO, you #BODOH - Live below your means
Maybe it’s the millennial in me. But my generation was the idiots who coined the term #YOLO (you only live once). Oh man, we sure lived that lifestyle as if it was our motto. Thanks, Drake.
When the music of that era was encouraging us to live it up ‘Like A G6’, you can’t help but get sucked into that mindset. Weekend getaway to Bali? #YOLO. Booking a staycay to party all night with your friends? #LEGGO. Payday, party, travel, come back, eat grass, survive till payday, repeat.
If I could turn back time, I would definitely not have succumbed so easily to peer pressure and groupthink. It’s cool to live in the moment but it’s even cooler to plant seeds for your future. Don’t fall into the trap of Keeping up with the Kardashians and spending more money than you can afford.
Instead, try to focus on living below your means and saving as much as you can. You can’t go wrong with the 50/30/20 budget rule. Set aside half of your pay for expenses, 30% for wants and 20% for savings. The earlier you develop this habit, the more cash flow you can enjoy in the future. Aim to have at least 6 months' worth of emergency cash in the bank for a start.
2. Insure, invest and implement
I remember during my NS days performing guard duty with a fellow platoon mate. While we were discussing our plans post-ORD, I vividly recall him sharing with me this important anecdote, “Insurance is not a scam, bro. Go get yourself covered as soon as you can.”
I mean, for a 20-year-old, I would say looking back that’s pretty sound advice. Insurance was such an alien concept to me as a young adult. But eventually, everyone needs to get at least a health insurance plan which comprises hospitalisation, accident and critical illness.
Find a financial advisor you trust which whom you can see yourself developing a long-term relationship and get their help to chart out your financial portfolio. When you start to earn more, do explore investment opportunities to make your money work for you. Once you’ve built up your emergency fund of liquid cash, I encourage you to invest the rest. Especially when you’re younger, you have a longer runway to compound your money and grow your wealth.
Whether it’s through DCA (dollar cost averaging) on stocks and ETFs (exchange-traded funds) with a robo-advisor or working with a fund manager directly, create and implement your investment strategy as soon as you are financially able to. The earlier you start to save and invest, the more time your money has to grow through compound interest. Even small amounts reinvested regularly can add up over time.
3. Avoid unnecessary debt
In my humble opinion, the biggest money-swindling scheme that has ever been created in the last decade is subscription sites. If you want to figure out what’s been draining your finances, go check your debit or credit card and see how many streaming platforms you’re paying for monthly.
First, there was Netflix. Then, the world went crazy and started launching new streaming services, left right and centre. Do you really need to have Disney+, Amazon Prime, Spotify, and YouTube Premium all at once? My advice is to pick one platform and drop the rest. It will be tough at first but there is strength in letting go.
Also, the biggest high-interest debt, such as credit card debt, can be difficult to pay off and set you back financially. Try to avoid borrowing money unless it's essential. I even know of people who will take a bank loan just to go on holiday or get married, which is sad. As long as you spend the money you earn, you’ll be on the right track.
4. Don’t fall for lifestyle inflation
Do you remember the good old days when you can use a student concession pass for public transport? What about the delicious $2 maggi goreng at your school canteen? It’s honestly a mystery to me how I was able to survive on just $10 a week back in polytechnic. Never once did I feel I was struggling though.
Then again, adulting includes paying for your own bills and spending $20 just for lunch if you’re working in the CBD. So there’s always going to be some form of inflation as you grow older. And we haven’t started talking about the recent GST increase yet.
As you progress in your career, you will hopefully start to earn more. But the best thing you can do is to live your life based on your previous salary. Doesn’t mean you have an extra $500, you should be going to fancier places to makan. Why not save more instead?
Don’t feel the need to flaunt your wealth just because you have. For all you know, that uncle chilling at the coffee shop in his berms and kopi kosong might easily have six figures in the bank because he chose to live simply and manage his finances well.
5. Work towards building multiple streams of income
Hey, if you feel like you’re earning enough in your current job, then more power to you. Perhaps it’s an all-consuming occupation like an army regular which makes it impossible to moonlight, so this point might not apply to you. However, I believe the faster you work towards generating at least two or three streams of income, the easier it is to reach your financial goals. As long as it doesn’t affect your main job, why not?
The best thing about being a writer for me is the ability to freelance for different publications. So it not only flexes my creative juices, it pushes me to write for separate audiences and develop versatility in my prose. Not only am I improving my skill set, but I also get to earn an extra paycheck as well.
My advice would be to consider leveraging your existing interests into a profitable side hustle. I am a huge pro wrestling fan and I love to talk about the subject with friends and colleagues. It was by accident that I stumbled upon the world of podcasting. I took a leap of faith, incorporated my passion for WWE and created Singapore’s first local pro wrestling podcast show Kick To The Gut! alongside my former colleague and radio DJ, Mister Young. 6 seasons, 5 years and over nearly 200 episodes later, we’ve developed our own niche audience and integrated ourselves into the local wrestling community, even earning money through sponsors, ads and listener support. I am truly blessed that I was able to turn my hobby into an income stream.
Ultimately, there are always opportunities to get back on track to meet your financial goal. While turning 30 and realising that I had zero savings sucked initially, I was lucky to be in a position where I was free of debt. In just half a year, I managed to turn my situation around by switching to a higher-paying job and implementing these 5 money-saving habits. I’m only now starting to take my finances more seriously now that I have plans to settle down and purchase a house down the road. But don’t wait till big-ticket items force you to knuckle down and get your life in order. Start early and you will have no regrets.
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