Today, I consolidated my financial position for the first time in… my life?… or at least in 2 years. I stared at the numbers and felt a shift in the relationship I had with my money, from one of escapism to one of ownership.
I started budgeting the moment I started working, but stopped sticking to it in mid-2019, after I got into a new relationship. Everyone concedes that they spend more money when they’re in a relationship than when they’re single. It’s all those dates, all those eating out, being willing to splurge more when you’re in twos rather than in ones. That year, Alex and I travelled together to Indonesia and Hong Kong, and also ate a lot of brunches and liberally ordered food from the menu without thinking twice (even in food courts: if you go to Chomp Chomp or East Coast Park you could easily spend $30 for 2 people with sambal stingrays and vegetables). Everything was new and exciting. And this liberalism in spending spilled over to other areas of my life, like having to grab a gourmet coffee with my sister after lunch.
Then, in late 2019, I was off to Shanghai. That was where my budget really got out of whack. I started to pay rent for the first time in my life. I bought the furniture for my house, and discovered Taobao. Lunches in the CBD cost 2–3x what I would pay in Singapore, and after a while it felt customary to buy a cup of coffee after that to power one through the rest of the workday. I received lump sums of relocation payments that felt disorienting from the low monthly salary I was receiving (for tax reimbursement reasons, and in China your annual salary is divided by 13 and not 12) — and hence keep track of how much money I was expected to save every month. The currency was inflated by 5x, and after a while it felt tedious to convert back. I would see a bank balance of 200k and feel rich, except that it was in RMB and not SGD.
It was this, and the psychological effect of being an expat in a foreign land, knowing I was being paid more than the locals — if not more than twice the average salary in Shanghai, then at least 10–20% of comparable jobs — but seemingly spending the same as them. And I was enjoying a slightly lower cost of living than in Singapore in terms of rent and food, and not knowing how long I would be in Shanghai for, so I was motivated to make the most of my new but precarious life. I had brunches every weekend, if not twice a weekend, and didn’t feel mad paying $7–8 for coffee that ended up tasting like shit.
For those reasons, and utter laziness, I ended up feeling like I was living on borrowed time and money in Shanghai, and my bubble was about to burst when I returned to Singapore for good. I was in a daze in my last 4 weeks in Shanghai, after receiving my MBA offer, liberally buying sashimi for dinner. My romantic relationship was hanging by a thread — multiple threads — too. Alex had entered a new phase of life — he was doing his own MBA, and the high social demands of it contrasted against me curling up in my tiny apartment, in the harshest Shanghai winter in the past 10 years, feeling like a shell of my former self, where I powered through the year with a single goal of getting admitted into the world’s most prestigious MBA programme (and what happens after you achieve it?). I knew I had to snap out of it eventually, this pseudo-depression, and it would happen in Singapore, surrounded by the people I grew up with and ending the LDR which lasted 1 year.
A sidetrack: I realised that my free time outside of work can be broken into two dominant emotions. The first emotion is strife — I’m striving to achieve something, be it hitting my reading goal, being active, planning for a trip. The second emotion is guilt — I feel guilty when I’m not striving. I think about the ten million things I could do to be a better person, to be more prepared. This is the dominant emotion for the past month — when I stopped going to the gym as much, when I felt I wasn’t networking hard enough, or concentrating on my finances and financial aid enough, when I was watching trashy shows instead of hitting my reading goal. I carried this guilt over to Singapore when I arrived, but slowly got better. I sped read through books, I started going to the gym, looking at housing options in Boston, and am now figuring out the finances. I’m still not operating as fast as I would like to be (i.e. still feeling guilty), but as my partner and Tony Soprano would say, “Take it easy.”
Which brings me to today. I was afraid to look at my financial position, afraid that the balance was lower than what it should be. I had bought some Ethereum 2.5 years ago when it was 600–700 USD per Ether, and at some point the value had dipped to below 200 USD (it’s now 1.8k USD, truly ridiculous that my paper value nearly tripled without me doing a damn thing), and I was also prepared to write off my folly. But the final number did not seem bad at all, and I was gripped by the knowledge that whatever money I spent after that, even if it was $1, would decrease my bank balance, and I would have to borrow the corresponding amount in the future.
It was a transformation as I walked along Orchard Road, no longer interested in popping by By Invite Only for the cutest hoops or browsing through Victoria’s Secret picturing how I would look in a red corset. The old self was back, and she will need to do up a monthly budget (even if she doesn’t stick to it, at least there is an awareness of how rapidly the treasury was depleting).
A Harvard MBA launched a personal Finance course for women last year. She realised that women were generally more hesitant to talk about their finances compared to men. It made me aware that my issues were not personal but could be part of a larger symptom in society, and that it was OK to start more conversations about investing and money. Even my sister and my closest friends have been more aggressive about investing (again, I cite earning RMB and initially not knowing how to take it out to convert to SGD — which at one point was running very low — as a primary reason for not doing so, but it’s all spilt milk). This post has been more personal than reflective, but these were just some thoughts swimming in my mind today.
“Men talk about finances more openly — it is seen as much more societally acceptable,” Schultz says. “Money is such a taboo topic, but men are more comfortable talking about money management and are more likely to talk about it, so there’s more informal conversations about it in male vs female networks.” As a result, men become more educated on how to manage personal finances — leaving women at a disadvantage for managing their own finances, because they haven’t engaged in those conversations.