My next great adventure

Hello. I haven’t written in here for over a month. I was kind of inspired to write a blog post after reading an update from a friend’s blog.

I’ve been busy. Busier than I expected I would be. Which is strange, considering my biggest change in my life.

But before I get to that, I think the reason why I was hesitant to write in this blog was that I connected it to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, so that each published post is automatically published on my wall.

I had a big announcement to make. But I didn’t want my Facebook friends to know about it through a post because I didn’t want to deal with comments on it. So I kind of didn’t write it.

Then it occurred to me, why don’t I just disconnect the blog from Facebook? That did it. And that’s why I also disabled comments on this post. If you want to tell me something, then please choose another means of communication. Thank you.

So the big announcement is: I’m semi-retired.

I never really planned for this. My plan has always been to work till I’m 60 years old, before slowing down. But in April this year, I fell out with my business partner after working together for 1.5 years. I don’t really want to say more than this. But basically, it meant that my business needed to change direction.

At the same time, I did a financial check and I realized that my freegan way of life has dropped my personal expenses to about $50 to $100 a month (that’s not a typo, and it doesn’t include mortgage and insurance). In essence, I didn’t need to work for income for a while.

In essence, I didn’t need to work for income for a while. I can last at least 2 years without having any income. But because I do have several small streams of income, I can go longer if I wanted. So I decided to enter semi-retirement. It’s not exactly a sabbatical because I still want to retain my license to serve my loyal clients. But there’s a lot of other things that I would like to learn and do during this period.

What all this means is that I didn’t need to change business direction. I could just stop working for a while. Take a break, y’know?

I decided to enter semi-retirement.

It’s not exactly a sabbatical because I still want to retain my license to serve my loyal clients. But there’s a lot of other things that I would like to learn and do during this period.

For one thing, I want to explore a moneyless way of life. Basically, if I can figure out how to live without using money, I can immediately proceed to retirement. It’s a fascinating way of life and, truth be told, I’ve wanted to do this since before I started my first job. But only now, when I’ve ensured that my financial responsibilities are met, could I attempt such an experiment.

For another, I want to explore other aspects of finance, to put to use the deep knowledge and experience I have acquired in my 7 years of financial planning, and see how I can use it in other ways rather than the way this business is normally done, which is 1-to-1. I want to see how it can be done 1-to-many, or even many-to-many, which is something that today’s technology can enable us to achieve.

So… what have I been busy with?

Well, I went on a couple of holidays in May and June. I spent four days living in Singapore outside my home without using money (except for public transport). I wanted to see if it was possible to live in Singapore without money. I believe it’s possible, but I need to run more and longer experiments. And since each holiday costs only $12 to $15, I can easily do this every month if I can carve out the time.

Then I’ve also started doing pro bono financial planning — working with people who would normally not be able to afford my fee. I’m volunteering with PlayMoolah, a company that I’ve long wanted to work with because the people have such fresh perspectives on the familiar world of personal finance. However, the time has never been right for the both of us. But now, serendipity has led us both to work closely together.

So I guess you could say that I expected my semi-retirement life to be lazing around, but it’s just not in me. Haha! Whatever form it takes, it’s going to be a really great learning adventure!

Should I put $500k into a bank with an interest rate of 13%?

Sometimes I write answers to financial questions on Quora.

The asker of this question added:

In my country, we have that high interest if you deposit that amount of money in a local currency. Our currency has been devaluated by 100% in 20–4–15. I really don’t think that it will happen again in any time soon, as oil prices started to increase and economy is getting more and more stable.

Here’s my answer:

In 2014, a client was about to invest $200K with me. A few days before, news of the Ebola epidemic broke, and he called me. He said, “Maybe we should wait till this epidemic is over before I invest. It’s going to cause the market to go down.”

I told him, “No one knows how the market will react. I advise you to invest now.”

He did.

The Ebola epidemic didn’t make a dent in the market and soon after, it spiked. He was glad he listened to my advice. But really, I didn’t do much. All I did was to be very aware that no one can predict the future, and don’t try to do so.

“I really don’t think that it will happen again in any time soon.”

This sentence will be the cause of you losing money, if any. Because what you have done here is to try to predict the future.

No one can predict the future. Many people will try and most will get it wrong, yourself included. Even if it’s not oil prices, something else can happen to devalue the currency again.

To put money in a bank with 13% interest tells me that inflation in your country is higher than that, and that your currency strength is weak.

These are the two things you need to consider when you decide what to do with your $500K. If inflation is higher than the interest rate, then even with 13%, the real value of your money will continue to decline. Add that to the fact that your currency strength is weak, and the value of your money also tends to decline.

In such a case, you may consider putting the money into a different currency, one that has historically shown itself to be strong and stable. Alternatively, you can consider investing the money in an asset class that tends to retain its value over time. Examples include gold and land.

Take note, however, that this answer addresses your question alone, and does not take into account your overall financial situation. You should seek the advice of a trustworthy and competent holistic financial planner before making any major investment decision.

This article was taken from Lumina Planners, the fee-based financial planning arm of Elpis Financial.

Why do some millionaire Singaporeans still live in HDB apartments?

A few years ago, I accompanied a friend to do door knocking. It’s the first and only time I ever did it — just for the experience. Door knocking is the activity that some insurance agents do to find customers. Other occupations that do this are ice-cream sellers, Christian evangelists, and other door-to-door salespeople. It’s extremely tiring, but the upside is that you get to meet lots of interesting people and hear their stories.

One elderly couple invited us into their flat for a cup of tea. As we conversed, we found out that they recently sold their 2-storey semi-detached house and bought this HDB flat they were now staying in. Their children had grown up and the house was too big for just the two of them. They decided to choose a central location that where public transport was easily accessible. The profits from the sale of the house were invested in bonds and stocks and they lived comfortably off the dividend income. You would never know that they are millionaire Singaporeans just by seeing them at the market.

I now stay in one of those HDB flats that have 3-room flats and studio apartments for the elderly. I wouldn’t say I’m very sociable, but I do talk to my neighbours. One neighbour used to run a business in an upscale residential area in the west where he also lived. He sold off the business and his house to move to this block because of the excellent location. He now takes about 4 holidays a year and is away for 2 months each time. Why have to maintain a big house if you’re only going to spend 4 months a year in it, he reasoned?

Another neighbour is a family of four. They used to stay in Malaysia, but recently moved in here because one child has graduated from university and is working in Singapore. The other child has started secondary school and it was more convenient for her to be living in Singapore.

Every day, there is a community of seniors who gather at the void deck to play cards, chess, listen to the radio or watch television together. Some are not well-off, that’s why they stay in the studio apartments. Some are very well-off, but they also stay in the studio apartments because it makes sense. Regardless of their financial situation, what they all gain from this arrangement is a sense of community. A sense that someone cares for them, is looking out for them, notices when they are absent.

We don’t have kampungs anymore, so HDB flats are the next nearest thing to having a community.

Downgrading often forms a part of a Singaporean’s retirement plan, but this largely depends on the property market cycle at the point of sale. It is important to regularly review your finances and your retirement plan to make sure it’s still relevant.

That’s why I advocate Holistic financial planning.

What personal finance mistakes should everyone avoid?

I’ve been learning about personal finance for 10 years and teaching personal finance for 7. Here are the top five common mistakes I’ve observed:

ONE: Spending more than you earn

I had two friends. One was a lawyer who earned $100K a year and spent $110K. The other was an engineer who earned $60K a year and spent $40K. Who do you think was in a better financial position after 5 years?

TWO: Not having an emergency fund

I had two friends. One took my advice to build an emergency fund which had about 6 months of expenses. The other spent all she had every month because YOLO.

After 3 years of work, both wanted to change careers. The first did so, depending on her emergency fund to tide her over for 4 months while she pursued the necessary qualifications. The other is still stuck in her job because she has no savings.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating an emergency fund.

THREE: Not having medical insurance

I had two friends. Both were fresh graduates who just entered the teaching profession. One purchased medical insurance for hospitalisation. One did not, thinking she would not need it.

Both faced immense stress in their jobs and one year later, both had illnesses that required hospitalisation. The first paid from his savings first, and the insurance company reimbursed him later. The second paid from her savings.

Who do you think was in a better financial position?

FOUR: Depending on someone else to manage your finances

I had two friends. Both became widows. One depended on her husband to manage the family finances. The other learnt from her husband how to manage the family finances.

When the first became a widow, her husband left a sum of money for her. It was quickly spent and lost to various “advisers”. When the second became a widow, she was grateful she took the time to learn how to manage her finances.

She now teaches other women how to manage their finances.

FIVE: Not knowing where investment returns come from

I had two friends. They both had some money to invest. They met two advisers. The first sold gold bars which promised 2% return a month. The second sold a safe investment which promised 2% return a year.

They both came to me for advice. I told them the first investment was a scam and the second was legit.

The first friend didn’t believe me and put all his money in gold. He lost all his money when the scam revealed itself a year later. The second friend listened and is still earning 2% a year on her investment.

Knowing how money works and where investment returns come from are crucial to not getting fleeced by the many investment schemes out there.

This article is taken from Lumina Planners, the fee-based financial planning arm of Elpis Financial. 

How do I overcome the belief that I have to be a millionaire or billionaire to enjoy life?

Sometimes I write answers to financial questions on sites like Quora.

Someone there asked the above question. They specified that while they have hobbies that they enjoy, they can’t shake the feeling that in order to truly enjoy life, they would need a significant net worth to allow them to try new things and experiences.

Here’s how I answered:

This is Keppel Island, where some of the richest people in Singapore stay.

Keppel Island

They stay on an island separate from the main island. Okay, it used to be separate until a bridge was made to join it to the main island. (I later found out that the buildings were not on the island.)

On this island are moored yachts. Small yachts like you see in this photo, and multi-storey super yachts.

A millionaire owner of a small yacht looks enviously as a billionaire owner takes his super yacht out to sea. The millionaire thinks, “If only I were as rich as he is, then I can truly enjoy myself.”

Being rich doesn’t mean you suddenly stop feeling envy of those who have more than you. In fact, being rich exposes you to those who have way more than you. It may even increase the feeling of envy and discontent in your life.

Clearly then, having more does not take away the feeling that you don’t have enough. Because at the heart of it, our money worries don’t stem from not having enough money; they stem from a deeper underlying feeling.

This article was taken from Lumina Planners, the fee-based financial planning arm of Elpis Financial.

What are most people ignorant of that prevents them becoming financially wealthy?

Sometimes I answers to financial questions on sites such as ConsultWho.sg and Quora. Recently there was a question on Quora which asked:

Q: What are most people ignorant of that prevents them becoming financially wealthy?

The person who asked the question wanted to know the answer specifically in terms of education/knowledge.

Here is how I answered:

There are 3 basic rules to money that most people know about, but fail to apply in their life.

ONE: Income – Expenses = Savings

Savings is the difference between your Income and your Expenses.

Many people focus on increasing Income, but they do not pay attention to reducing Expenses. In Quora and almost everywhere else, you see people asking questions such as ‘How to make more money’. But you do not see people asking, ‘How to live on $100 a month’.

When Income increases, Expenses tend to increase proportionately. Sometimes disproportionately. This is called ‘lifestyle creep’. This is the greatest threat to becoming financially independent.

The net result is that Savings does not increase.

The way to increase Savings is by both increasing Income and reducing Expenses. The reason why many people prefer not to focus on reducing Expenses is because they think that there is a limit to how much you can reduce Expenses to.

They are not wrong.

The limit you can reduce your Expenses to is zero, but most people don’t realise that you can live very happily on zero Expenses and still fulfil all your wants in life.

But this is a topic for another time. Let me focus on your question.

A person who earns $10K and spends $9K a month saves as much as a person who earns $2K and spends $1K a month. However, the $1K spender is in a much better financial position than the $9K spender. To understand why, you have to look at the next two rules.

TWO: Savings → Investments → Passive Income

Savings have various uses. It is used to pay off debt, which reduces Expenses. It is use to invest, which increases Income. Both these actions in turn go back to increasing Savings. The eventual goal of Savings is to convert it into low-risk investments that produce regular Passive Income.

Some people prefer to use high yield investments. I prefer not to, because high risk investments increase the chances of losing capital or income, which in turn threaten freedom and increase stress.

My goal is stress-free financial independence. Besides, Saving money is both low-risk and high yield.

THREE: Passive Income > Expenses = Financial Independence

The goal of investing is to increase Passive Income to the point where it exceeds Expenses. This is financial independence. This is the true measure of being financially wealthy.

A wealthy person is not someone with $1 million in his bank account. A wealthy person is someone who will never finish spending his money. The longer your money can last, the wealthier you really are.

Therefore, a person who has $100K in the bank and spends $100 a month is wealthier than a person who has $1 million in the bank and spends $10K a month. The first person can last 80 years, but the second person can last only 8 years.

Time, not money, is the true measure of wealth.

This is why a $9K spender will find it 9 times harder than a $1K spender to reach financial independence — because his passive income needs to be 9 times higher. Unfortunately, his savings is the same as the $1K spender.

To sum up:

  1. Focus not on increasing Income or reducing Expenses, but on increasing Savings.
  2. Use your Savings to further increase income and reduce Expenses, and to generate Passive Income.
  3. Do this until your Passive Income exceeds your Expenses.

 

This article was taken from Lumina Planners, the fee-based financial planning arm of Elpis Financial. 

Decluttering — One item a day

A few weeks ago, my aunt shared with me her method for decluttering:

One item a day. 

Every day, she looks at her stuff and asks, “Have I used this in the past 6 months?” 

If the answer is ‘no’, out it goes.

While I am a fan of batching – grouping similar tasks together and performing them at one go – decluttering one item a day has its merits. 

For one, it cultivates a daily habit of decluttering your life, as opposed to doing it all at one go. While the latter has many positive feelings attached to it, it often requires a lot of uninterrupted time. 

And very often, the person doing the interrupting is you. 

For another, having a daily habit of reducing the number of items you have one item at a time reduces the amount of willpower needed to perform the task to almost zero. 

Doing it daily is a habit and something feels odd if you didn’t do it today. 

After a while, it becomes part of us. We are constantly looking for ways to reduce our attachments to our possessions. 

After all, we don’t take any of it when we die, so why get so attached to them? It becomes easier to let go when it’s our turn to go. 

P.S.: Yes, declutter is a word. The English language evolves. 

Sharing is Caring

A few months ago, I organised a Treasure Hunt event for our freegan community. The purpose of the event was to give a live demo for aspiring freegans on how to go about getting free stuff. Learning from the first-hand experience, they can then go back to their own neighbourhoods and practice it on their own.

During the Treasure Hunt, one participant was horrified at the sheer amount of merchadise we found, especially the ones that are in good condition.

“There must be a more efficient way of distributing these items,” she remarked. “Why don’t you designate an area at your block and tell everyone that they can leave their unwanted items here? Then anyone can come and help themselves to whatever they want?”

The thought of jumping through hoops and getting this approved by the town council was enough to turn me off the idea. But it stayed at the back of my mind, ruminating. Also, back then, I was early in my freegan journey, and I was still keeping most of the free stuff for myself.

Now, a few months later, when all my material needs and wants are met, and I have so much more than enough for myself, I’ve started looking outwards. This has led me to find avenues to channel the excess stuff

One clear channel is to charity. Not charitable organisations; they also have more than enough stuff. For example, Salvation Army receives 10 tonnes of stuff every day! My preferred mode of charity is to donate it directly to poor people in the Philippines via a freegan contact in Singapore. We give away the stuff that we don’t want every month to our contact whose team packs the stuff in large boxes and ships it to her village in the Philippines.

However, the logistics of this operation means that:

  1. It makes sense to transport the stuff to the collection point only when we have enough of it to make the trip worthwhile; and
  2. It doesn’t make sense to ship some items over, because it takes up space in the container, and is not that valuable to the recipients.

This means there are still things that we don’t give to charity because it’s not efficient to do so. Which also means that I need to find other means to share these items.

Last night, on my regular round, I chanced across a decent bookshelf. My first thought was, “I want to bring this back with me!”

My second thought was, “Where in my home can I put this?”

I’m out of space. I’ve brought back so much furniture that I don’t have any more space unless I get rid of some. So I left the bookshelf behind and continued on my rounds. As I continued, the image of the bookshelf kept coming to mind. I wanted it but had no place for it at home. But…

What if I don’t use it at home?

By the time I finished my rounds, I knew what to do. After unloading my finds, I took my trusty trolley to the bookshelf and trundled it home on a wheelchair-friendly route, thanks to the town council. My elderly neighbour uses an electric wheelchair to get around. Sometimes I see her zooming around the neighbourhood, and I take note of the wheelchair-friendly routes for situations such as these.

I brought the bookshelf home, dusted it and wiped it with disinfectant. Then I printed out two notices and posted them on the bookshelf and the insides of lifts.

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Finally, I brought the bookshelf down to the void deck, and positioned it where it would be noticeable. It looked a bit bare, so I went back home and picked out certain sample items. I furnished the bookshelf with them, and hoped for the best.

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In the morning, I received a phone call asking about the bookshelf. There were some items that no one knew what to do with.

“Don’t throw them away,” I said, in halting Mandarin. “If you don’t want it, someone else will.”

I left home around noon and brought with me a few more items for the Sharing-is-Caring shelf. The elderly folks gather and commune daily in that area. There were a lot more people than I was prepared to meet, and the usual questions spewed forth:

“Are these still usable?” Yes.

“Why don’t you want them?” I have too much of it, or, I don’t use it.

“Must pay or not?” No. It’s free.

“Did you buy these things to give us?” No. It’s free.

In exchange, I got a McDonald’s Happy Meal for free.

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One elderly man picked up a Monopod (selfie stick) with glee. “I can use this to take photos!” he exclaimed. I never would have thought that he, of all people, would want a Monopod. But it just goes to show that the thing that you don’t want is the thing that another person is dying to have.

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Among us freegans, especially the new ones, there is a burning question that always pops up.

“Why do people throw this away??”

I used to think that there is no answer to this question, but now I realise the answer:

“Because they don’t know who would want it.”

If you want something, it is up to you to make known to others that you want it. Then you leave it up to others to decide whether or not to give it to you.

Ask and you shall receive.
Seek and you will find.
Knock and the door will be opened to you.


If you’d like to know more about the freegan lifestyle, come for our Singapore Saving Money Meetup that will be held on Sat 15 Apr, 3-6pm at National Library Hanis Cafe.

UPDATE (14/4/17):

The shelf soaked up water from today’s rain and the wood disintegrated. The shelf had to be thrown away. I’ve retrieved the items from the shelf. Oh well, I tried.

The road to business failure is paved with good ideas

There are many good ideas floating around. People who create ideas often guard them jealously. However, an idea without execution is just imagination. Our imaginations are powerful, so powerful that it can convince us that we’re doing something when we’re not actually producing any real results.

It is planning and execution that turn these ideas into reality.

I’m not a guy with many ideas. A good friend calls me unoriginal because I just copy his ideas.

Another friend likens business to the army:

  • Officers strategise. They instruct the unit to conquer a hill because of the location.
  • Specialists plan. They figure out how to flank the enemy at the hill.
  • Men execute. They are the ones who do the actual flanking.

I’m a specialist. I’m good at figuring out how to turn a strategy or idea into an actionable plan. I can initiate the execution, but I’m pretty bad at follow-up and improvising. When I have a plan, I stick to it. I find it hard to deviate from the plan, and I’m really bad at thinking on the spot.

However, on the flip side, when I’ve had time to think and plan, I can come up with a really comprehensive response. I go really deep in. That’s where I do my best work.

Knowing yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses is very important in figuring out how to always be doing your best work. I don’t spend much time working on my weaknesses. I’d rather be outstanding at what I’m good at than average in everything.

I learned this when I was in JC. Throughout my academic life, I’ve been weak in Mandarin. I was told that I needed to pass my Mandarin in order to make it to university. So I worked hard at Mandarin. I scored an F9 in my first year in JC, and Cs and Ds for my other subjects. In my second year, I scored F9 again at my second attempt at passing Mandarin. I was still struggling with my other subjects. After the second attempt, I made an important decision:

I would not study for Mandarin anymore.

Despite my best efforts, my grade sucked. So I was not going to put in any more effort into it. If I failed in my third attempt, so be it. I’ve tried my best and it wasn’t good enough. I was going to divert all that time and energy towards my other subjects.

For my ‘A’ Levels, I scored an E8 for Mandarin. Apparently not studying and randomly answering the questions improved the grade. I got an A in Chemistry, and a B in Physics and Mathematics. And I got into university, though I did have to attend a one-month Chinese camp.

This life experience taught me not to waste time and energy working on my weaknesses, but instead to focus on maximising my strengths.

Over time, I came to learn my strengths.

I’m not the one who comes up with ideas. I’m the one who figures out how to turn those ideas into action. I’m the one who initiates that action, but I’m not the one who improvises it.

I work with those whose strengths are to think of ideas and those whose strengths are to improvise on the fly.

I’ve summed up my Unique Ability as follows:

To listen to people’s ideas,
organise the information,
in order to create systems
that execute their plans.

If you’ve got an idea that you can’t seem to translate into action, talk to me.

As a holistic planner, I listen to my clients’ hopes and dreams. They’ve got all these wonderful ideas of how they want to live their lives. But they get stuck at the numbers, information, and details.

That’s where I take all their information and organise it to help them figure out where they are and where they want to go. Together, we work out a plan that gets them where they want to go. Then my team starts executing the plan.

There is no shortage of good ideas floating around, only a shortage of people who can turn those ideas into action.

How to create your own modern kampong

I live in a 3-room HDB flat. This means that space inside my home is quite limited. There is a hobby that I spend about an hour or so every night that requires a little bit more open space than there is inside my home.

I sit on a stool in the shared space outside my flat and engage in my hobby. Tonight was one of the most memorable nights.

Why?

Because for the first time, all my immediate neighbours joined in. We brought out our little stools and just sat around chatting with each other for the better part of 2 hours this evening.

It’s pretty amazing actually, where I live.

When I first moved in, I wanted to create a sense of community among my neighbours. But I didn’t know how to do it.

Over time, it seems we have bonded over food. Part of my dinner tonight was this amazing bowl of tom yum soup that my neighbour cooked.

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My neighbour loves to cook. And she cooks really well. As any frequent cook knows, it can be hard to get the exact portion each time. And it is better to have cooked too much than too little. At the same time, you probably don’t want to eat leftovers the next day. So what do you do with your leftovers?

You share them with your friendly neighbours.

I started this trend of sharing food among my neighbours a few months ago. No, not by sharing my food with them, but the reverse. I asked them to share with me their leftovers.

At around December 2016, I unexpectedly learned that many families have too much food. As part of a comfort challenge — which was really a get-out-of-your-comfort-zone challenge — I approached my neighbours individually to ask them what they do with their leftover food.

They throw away their leftover food.

I asked 3 neighbours, and all 3 neighbours told me that whenever they have too much food, they throw it away.

“Why?” I asked.

Because, they said, although they wanted to give their leftover food to the other neighbours, they weren’t sure if the neighbours wanted it, and they kind of felt bad to give leftover food.

“Don’t feel bad!” I said.

At that point, I explicitly made known to each of them that if ever, they had too much food, they could always give it to me. I accept all foods, so long as it’s edible.

Nowadays, I receive a regular supply of food. Actually, at times I too have too much food. It was this sharing of food that got me and my neighbours to open up to each other. I spoke to each of them more. Not just the families, but also their domestic helpers. And over time, I facilitated conversations which enabled the neighbours to get to know each other better too.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon to find that we all leave our doors and gates wide open when we are home. It’s so beautiful to see the level of trust we have in each other.

I’ve never lived in a real kampong before, but perhaps this is the closest I’ll get to living in a modern day kampong.