May 10, 2009
Money lessons from mum
She scrimped and saved and made sure I studied hard so that I could get a good job
By Lorna Tan
We are often told that our perceptions and the way we manage our lives are coloured by our experiences. This includes the way we handle our finances.
For me, the memories of my first money lessons are invariably linked to my mother, a housewife.
It was she who first planted the idea of financial independence into my head.
I was in primary school when she told me in no uncertain terms that I had to study hard so that I could earn my own keep. Money was important because, with it, I would have more choices in life and enjoy the freedom of doing whatever I wanted, as well as with whomever I wanted to spend my life with.
From an early age, she instilled in me the virtues of thrift and spending within my means.
This meant that if I had $1 in pocket money, I should spend less than that sum and save the difference. She would check on what I spent at the school tuckshop by turning up at my school during recess. That was how she once caught me spending all my pocket money on popsicles. Needless to say, I received a shelling.
But what left a deep impression was the way she handled the family's finances. Dad, who worked as a fireman and later as a security guard, would hand her the bulk of his monthly pay, leaving just enough for himself.
Mum did the weekly marketing, patronising the stalls at the Tiong Bahru wet market with the best and freshest produce at the lowest prices. The rest of the money was saved for a rainy day.
It paid for the tuition classes my younger brother and I took, and my parents' three-room HDB flat in Zion Road which was bought in 1988. Prior to that, we lived in my grandparents' home in the same road. My father retired in 2001.
Mum had worked as a hairdresser but became a housewife when I was born. Her greatest regret is not having gone to school. Because of her father's gambling habit, the family ran out of cash just before she was meant to start school.
But for one who had never been to school, her mathematical skills have never failed to astound me. Till today, she can do mental calculations that even I have difficulty with.
Partly because of her missed opportunity, she saw to it that my only duty as a child was to study and get good grades.
She was so serious about my excelling in studies that she made sure I didn't waste time on activities that she considered unimportant at home. I never needed to lift a finger to help out with the housework and cooking. I was practically shooed out of the kitchen if I were to enter it.
As a result, I didn't learn how to cook from her, which is a pity since she is an excellent cook.
My parents have close family friends who weren't as careful with their finances, mainly because of their gambling habits. Once, Mum had to pawn her jewellery so that she could lend them the money to pay off their debts.
I saw the helplessness and desperation on the faces of those people when they were in financial distress and I vowed never to be in their shoes. I must always have enough and not have to rely on others for financial help.
My first savings account was with the POSB. Back then, students were given stickers for every 10 cents saved. For every 50 cents of daily pocket money, I would save 20 cents, earning two POSB stickers.
I was scrupulous in saving the money from my Chinese New Year hongbao, or red packets, and my birthday hongbao.
Upon finishing my pre-university education at Catholic Junior College, I became financially self-sufficient and stopped taking money from my parents.
During a six-month vacation before starting my first year at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I sold calorie-counting weighing scales at Centrepoint and mooncakes at Chinese Garden. I worked at various times as a typist, relief teacher and secretary.
A bursary (the Wee Kheng Chiang Memorial Bursary) funded my first-year tuition fees at NUS.
I started giving tuition at home, as a result of which I had enough savings to cover my second- and third-year fees as well as my living expenses.
As I grew older, my outlook on financial independence became more sophisticated, particularly after I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki in 2003. In his book, the financial guru talks about the importance of acquiring financial aptitude.
What Mum taught me was just the first part of the equation: to earn a steady income from which I can save.
I realised that earning a good salary was not enough. This is the next part of the equation: learning how to be financially literate, which means understanding the different investment tools and making my money work harder.
Now I embrace Mr Kiyosaki's idea of financial independence, which is to have a flow of passive income from income-generating assets - such as rental from properties - that is sufficient to more than cover one's expenses and liabilities.
More than just the person who influenced me most in my basic money management skills, Mum has also been a great source of support in my life, particularly in helping to raise my two children.
On this Mother's Day, besides wishing her great health and an abundance of blessings from above, I will be giving her a hongbao. She will, of course - do I expect anything else? - save the money.