Commentary: Managing personal finances is a minefield when you start 'adulting'
The problem goes beyond a lack of financial literacy taught in school. The world of financial planning has transformed since our parents’ generation, making our relationship with money more complicated, says Grace Yeoh.
SINGAPORE: As a young working adult starting out more than half a decade ago, financial advisors were the bane of my existence — or at least my journey home from the MRT station.
They would bombard me with hard-sell tactics and financial jargon, in hopes of evangelising the importance of insurance and planning for the future.
Even though they meant well, the topic of personal finance felt like an overwhelming beast. It was a reminder that somehow I wasn’t a “proper” adult since my money was sitting in an ordinary savings account with barely-there interest rates.
Even now among my friends, there seems to be little middle ground when it comes to financial literacy. On one end of the spectrum are diehard bitcoin bros who know exactly which stock to place bets on and what products yielded good returns.
On the other end were extreme spendthrifts who lived from paycheck to paycheck, believing they’d magically get their act together when they hit a certain age. They had no investments or insurance, and whatever savings they had was used to pay for short-term goals.
I fall somewhat in the middle – a fairly good saver but financially illiterate so much so that I would barely pass a basic jargon test.
The question for folks like me is: Why did we get to this state and where do we start?
LACK OF FINANCIAL LITERACY IN SCHOOLS
The first port of call is school. Even though I enjoyed mathematics lessons, my penchant for solving complicated problems didn’t translate into smartly managing my money.
I don’t remember being exposed to personal finance, aside from creating a savings account during primary school.
Instead, what would’ve been useful would be topics that would be relevant as we got older. For example, the concept of saving 20 per cent of one’s allowance could already be taught in kindergarten or lower primary, whereas managing debt and how loans or interests work could be delved into at the upper secondary or junior college level.
Looking back, I would have appreciated if the subject Principles of Accounts (POA) was compulsory for all students.
Unless we had parents whose financial savviness made them talk openly about managing money at home, it was par for the course that many young people knew next to nothing about money by the time they graduated.
It’s something Chew Tee-Ming, co-founder of Seedly, a Singaporean personal finance community, sees.
“Young adults don't know what they don't know," he says.
“Insurance and financial products are also not easy to understand due to their complex structure. It can cause anxiety among beginners, especially when they’re approaching major life stages like entering the workforce or starting a family.”
Fortunately, a few financial literacy programmes have been launched within the last decade to help young adults, such as the Citi-SMU Financial Literacy Programme for Young Adults, and a financial education curriculum piloted at polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) colleges.
Even outside Singapore, financial literacy has only just begun to make its way into schools. According to a CNBC report last year, 45 states in the US “now include personal finance education in their curriculum standards for kindergarten through 12 grades, although only 37 states require those standards to be implemented by local school districts”.
But teaching financial literacy in schools isn’t enough, we need to get around the stigma of talking about money.
STIGMA IN MONEY TALK
“Money can be such a sensitive thing to discuss because many people confuse their net worth with their self-worth. As a result, a lot of uncomfortable emotions are tied to it – shame, anxiety and arrogance are just some examples,” He Ruiming, co-founder of The Woke Salaryman, tells me.
Often, these uncomfortable emotions don’t originate from tackling big finance concepts, like cryptocurrency, or deciding which stocks to buy.
They stem from everyday scenarios related to money, such as figuring out the the amount to give for a wedding when you’re not close to the couple, trying to suss out how much salary your colleagues with the same experience get, and navigating the landmine of whether it’s reasonable for parents to expect allowance as part of filial piety.
Even when seeking advice from trusted friends and family, we might hesitate to go into details about our personal finances because it’s a touchy topic.
Despite there being more than 20,000 financial planners in Singapore, many of us have had an experience with those who only sell products from certain companies, without truly understanding what we need.
But getting a grasp on financial literacy isn’t a skill we can develop overnight if we spend our lives burying our heads in the sand. It must be consciously learnt through avenues where you can address your doubts without judgement.
PERSONAL FINANCE BLOGS A HUGE HELP
This is where personal finance bloggers come into the picture. With the quickly evolving local personal finance landscape over the last few years, personal finance blogs and personal finance communities, like Seedly, have managed to create more avenues for people to talk about money much more openly, in the comfort of their phones and in privacy.
From The Woke Salaryman to The Simple Sum, and even OG personal finance creators, like SG Budget Babe, these blogs fill the gap between stuffy financial institutions and financial advisors, and friends and family with no financial planning expertise.
These platforms often break down complex financial issues into relatable comics and stories, appealing to the self-starter who is willing to learn but feels put off by aggressive and pushy sales tactics.
When I discovered The Woke Salaryman from their first post about saving S$100,000 by 30, which began with an anecdote about the author’s mom having suffered a stroke, I could relate to the singular determination from his personal story that propelled him to start taking his finances extra seriously.
But even the most simple or relatable personal finance blog can’t truly help you manage your money if you haven’t first understood your fundamental relationship with it.
WHAT MONEY MEANS TO YOU
A financial planner who managed high networth clients once told me that even though his clients were wealthy now, those who grew up poor were more risk averse when it came to investments, because they were afraid they could lose it all and be poor again.
Likewise, a friend who dabbles in the arts says managing her personal finances well is exceptionally important so she has the mental freedom to pursue creative work.
In my case, money directly impacts my mental health – and a critical factor of my mental well-being is about not being financially tied to any situation, from relationships to jobs.
Aside from my regular savings for a home or emergency medical illnesses, I found it necessary to set aside a separate Freedom Fund, which I could tap on to escape non-ideal situations.
For instance, if I wanted to take an indefinite sabbatical from work or if I needed to leave a relationship that I was financially dependent on, I could afford to choose my freedom thanks to this extra cash. I saw my Freedom Fund as a way to take newfound control over my life.
In turn, unlocking what money meant to me meant I began taking my personal finances seriously, such as finding a financial advisor I trust.
Like me, most people don’t want to become an investment guru; neither are they absolutely hopeless with money.
But all of us have to navigate a life path that involves money – perhaps saving for a child after marriage or preparing yourself for a stretch of uncertainty when you embark on an entrepreneurial journey.
In most cases, financial freedom might not buy you happiness, but it could buy you extra time to mull over important decisions, a more comfortable parenting journey, or even peace of mind from knowing you won’t starve without a job for six months.
Like all healthy relationships, your relationship with money should be mutually beneficial. After you work for it, it has to work for you – and understanding how to better value your money begins with first realising its value to you.
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Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist with CNA Insider.