Commentary: Single and secure? Does family life come at the expense of financial freedom?
So many factors can change how much we need for financial freedom. What’s important is to make active efforts to earn, save and better invest our money, says financial trainer Ng Wai Chung.
SINGAPORE: Family plays a declining role in Singaporeans’ journey to a better life.
At least according to AXA Insurance Singapore when it released findings of its Better Life Index 2021.
Fellow financial bloggers alerted me to this interesting finding that millennials viewed financial freedom as a more important purpose in life than having a happy family.
Unsurprising perhaps, when 2020 census data from the Department of Statistics showed a rising proportion of singles, particularly those aged 25 to 34.
Still, the conclusion seemed depressing and alarmist. Surely they aren’t mutually exclusive pursuits in this journey of life? Though having financial control is often an important prerequisite for a happy family life so we don’t have to endure day-to-day worries.
My own experience reflects this: More than a decade ago, I worked aggressively to live within my investment income as a bachelor and grew it further to support my wife and two children.
In fact, my family of four had no breadwinner in the four years I pursued my law degree.
Today, even though we can live comfortably on investment returns, I continued with my business to set aside savings for the kids’ education and our future healthcare needs.
But just how much do we need to put for a happy, fufilled family life of comfort?
Financial advisors say you should focus on the safe rate of withdrawal - a staple in retirement planning that states we can spend the amount equivalent to 4 per cent of savings at retirement for 30 years without running out of money.
Going by this, someone with S$1 million in investments could spend S$40,000 annually, inflation-adjusted, for about 30 to 40 years.
SINGLES HAVE TOTAL CONTROL BUT ALSO ALL THE RESPONSIBILITY
There is no running way from the fact that the greatest advantage of singlehood is total control over personal finances.
Like many singles in Singapore, I had mostly lived with my parents, so almost all my earnings went into dividend-yielding investments. I saved every dollar possible, with cheaper meals and at one point even used a rubber band to attach the battery to my Nokia handphone to avoid replacing it.
Yes, I was crazy frugal. But I felt a sense of achievement at age 32, when I could sustain all my expenses, including taxes and parents’ allowance, with only investment dividends.
Sometimes good financial planning can start with small steps. One fewer cup of bubble tea a week can save S$200 every year.
In a recent study, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy estimated that a single person aged 55 to 64 in 2021 spends S$1,768 monthly, or S$21,216 yearly, on basic needs.
This is a great baseline to aim for as a Gen Z fresh graduate starting to save and invest. Applying the safe withdrawal rate, one can sustain this level of spending for 30 years with S$530,400.
Can you get there before getting married, such that everything you earn can be channeled to housing and household needs without worrying about whether there’s enough to retire?
It’s a challenging feat for most. Say you can set aside S$2,000 monthly, you’d still need a tough and risky 14.1 per cent return on investment to accumulate S$500,000 within a decade.
But this is possible for thrifty, single professionals who can set aside salary increments and bonuses.
COUPLES SHARE AND LIGHTEN THE LOAD
The financial consequence of getting married of course is that expenses go up. My wife worked and we remained a frugal couple, so it took little time for investment income to catch up.
In the same study, a couple at age 65 in 2021 would need a basic budget of S$2,419 monthly, or S$29,028 yearly, lower than that for two singles. Couples can derive economies of scale living together, the most obvious being housing-related costs.
The target sum for financial freedom would be S$725,700, or S$362,850 each equally divided, and likely a more realistic goal for many. It’s a useful data-point for young couples to start planning even if they likely spend more than retirees.
Examining these numbers, my ambition as a bachelor might have been extreme. A single professional today can start saving less aggressively and update their strategy to share the load with a like-minded soulmate when the time comes.
So marriage need not be a trade-off to pursuing financial freedom and could actually make it more easily attainable together.
TIME-LIMITED CHALLENGES FOR FAMILIES
Things change when children come into the picture but there’s no need to fear.
My wife and I decided to have our first child after making plans to grow our investment income and she quit her day job to look after our daughter full-time.
We tried to live only within the dividends, which meant little “excess savings” and we struggled to put funds into her Child Development Account.
My colleagues were puzzled by my reluctance to touch my salary. But when we occasionally “overspent” and had to dig into my pay, it felt like a step back from being financially free.
The study also calculated a budget of S$6,426 monthly or $77,112 yearly for a family of four with one child aged between seven and 12 and a teenager aged between 13 and 18.
To sustain such spending for 30 years, the family would need $1,927,800. But it might not be meaningful to peg financial planning to a young family as expenses tend to go down after children leave the nest.
FINANCIAL FREEDOM STILL WITHIN REACH
There are so many factors that might change how much we need for financial freedom.
Would you spend this much as you get greyer? Might you have future goals of upgrading to a bigger house? Will adult children continue to live with you?
The sandwiched class will also have more complex needs, juggling eldercare and parenting.
Perhaps the key thing to remember is many of us cycle through all three life stages described – each with its own demands and considerations.
What’s important is to arm ourselves with a strong understanding of what we need and how much it’ll cost, then make active efforts to supplement – not necessarily replace - income with investment returns, in a combination of earning, saving and better investing our money.
We can save more by changing retail habits, such as buying clothes infrequently from mass fashion chains and thrift stores, or finding alternative family outings like libraries, parks and museums at close to no cost.
We can look for better investment returns - higher than the 4 per cent safe withdrawal rate but often at a similarly higher risk.
In Singapore, we are fortunately in a system that doesn’t tax capital gains or dividends, with real estate investment trusts (REITs) on the stock market structured to pay up to four times a year. You can build a conservative portfolio of blue-chips, REITs, and business trusts could potentially yield 5 to 7 per cent, based on SGX dividend yield information.
An achievable start can be saving S$30,000 for investment, which translates into S$100 in passive investment income every month.
Making a deliberate attempt to achieve financial freedom doesn’t have to come at the expense of setting up a family.
The best time to start aiming for financial freedom is 20 years ago. The second best time is right now.
Christopher Ng Wai Chung is a Singapore-based freelance trainer with Dr Wealth and conducts an Early Retirement Masterclass.