Sunday stories: Being broke, finding eureka & making it work

Since I’ve been posting quite a fair bit on personal finance – and we’re friends now, aren’t we – I thought I’d share a short background story into how I got started and where it all began. 

I started to dabble in managing my own money (properly, with a plan) when I was the epitome of a broke postgraduate student and needed to make sure my monthly allowance stretched wide enough to cover all my “life in an expensive city” expenses. My rent was through the roof and slashed away more than half my allowance, and my grocery budget – already pared down to the bare necessities – was so tight I hardly wasted any food (which was a great upside).

bills

Tracking my daily expenses became a necessity, and I balanced my budget at the end of every week to make sure I had enough to keep me going for the rest of the month. One key point to this story is I really had no choice but to count every penny (and make every penny count) because if the money ran dry, that was it – I was at the bottom of the barrel. I had zero access to credit – no credit card, not even an overdraft facility – so cash was king.

But living like that for a year and a half taught me so much. I lived in a big city where I would walk past a number of homeless people on my daily trek to class, and that taught me really important lessons on humility and gratitude. I very quickly stopped focusing on the limitations of my tight budget, all the things I couldn’t do or buy, and gained a sincere appreciation for what I did have. Sure, a Starbucks coffee was a weighted choice for me (and certainly not just an automatic purchase), but I had a bed to go home to, food in the fridge, and enough clothing to keep me warm

It was challenging – and demotivating – at first, because after being so used to throwing things into my grocery basket and sauntering through the check-out cashiers without so much as batting an eye, I suddenly found that my grocery trips became weekly exercises of mental math, where I would tally up my shopping bill in real-time whenever I took something new off a shelf. It was like playing grocery budget tetris; if I wanted a big box of fresh strawberries maybe I should just get chicken (again!) instead of prawns this week?

But after a couple of months, it became second nature to me and it wasn’t that difficult anymore. The wonderful thing is that I wasn’t miserable either. I adjusted quite quickly and just made it work. Tracking my spending, planning my budget, and making sure I was financially set gave me a very powerful and important sense of control.

It’s so easy to pull yourself down, especially when “life is hard” and you don’t have a job/enough money/a husband (or whatever may ail you at the time), and feel like you’ve completely lost control. This is dangerous because it could start a downward cycle of “why me” self-victimizing, and a toxic belief that your situation is someone/something else’s fault and you can’t do anything to help yourself because the cards have been dealt, the game is rigged, and you’re doomed to lose. You might start thinking, I don’t earn enough, my salary is too small. Or perhaps you have family commitments that you can’t shake off: chipping in to pay for the bills, or supplementing a younger sibling’s school fees. The price of milk keeps going up, the government isn’t doing their job regulating this – and that’s why I’m broke!

Going through the reality of having no choice but to make it work (because sorry buddy your family and government are on the other side of the globe and you’re on your own!) chased away all these thoughts before they could even blossom. Yeah okay, maybe I could’ve complained that my student allowance wasn’t enough. I mean HELLO, my rent ate a whopping 53% of the entire amount – and I wasn’t exactly living the penthouse life either! I took the living room of a one bedroom apartment and I didn’t even have my own door, I strung a curtain over a tension rod and called it a day. None of this was my fault right? My government sponsor should update their darn standard of living database and think of the welfare of their scholars! How dare they turn a blind eye and allow their scholars to be subjected to these types of living conditions!

*ANGRY RANTING ON BRUNEIFM*

Ya, no.

I’m not saying I possessed a higher-order of virtue and goodness, gratitude and inner peace, and just accepted it like a Saint.

Remember, I was literally half a world away from the place I call home and I was a (sort of) small-town girl in a big city (but no shady business), and I only knew a small handful of people within a 100-mile radius. It was a scary time, truly.

And in times of real urgency, something very natural and very primitive called the fight-or-flight response kicks in.

 

Not to sound like a (corny ass) hero, but I chose to fight. And… Woaw woaw fasten your seatbelts, cos we’re in for a cheesy ride… The most important battles are with ourselves. I knew that I could write letters and protest and petition to get an allowance hike and free lunches and goodness knows what else. I could bang on office doors and embarrass myself demanding to be heard. Or I could just give up, call my parents and tell them I’m struggling to make ends meet – wire over some money please. Even worse, I could just be like nah this is impossible, pack my bags and go home.

But I thought about it rationally. Pleading for more aid on top of my fully-paid-for tuition fees was a ridiculous proposition. Even if the suggestion were considered, it would take a long time to implement and I’d probably graduate long before that came into force. My parents? God no. I prided myself on being able to live fairly independently as soon as I left high school, I wasn’t about to backtrack on that now. And quitting to go home just because textbooks were exorbitantly overpriced was pretty unthinkable.

So what choice did I have? Well, one: make it work. Count every penny, and make every penny count.

And, honestly, it was one of the best life lessons I ever had the opportunity to experience first hand. I graduated three years ago, with zero debt and (deliberately) zero savings too because I wasn’t about to pass up my last opportunity to travel unbounded. I was lucky in that I secured my first job while I was still away, and started work seven days after landing back home for good.

So ever since then I’ve been an employed, young professional (…yuppie…) and my disposable income is more than I ever had when I was a student. I remember receiving my first paycheck and thinking WOAH LOOK AT ALL THIS MONEY I NEVER USED TO HAVE! And by then I was back at home, didn’t have to feed the rent monster and dining out was affordable. I had more cash to play with than I ever had before, and it didn’t matter if I spent it all, I’d get another paycheck just like it next month, and then the next, and then the next! And the cherry on top of the cake was the bank offered me a free credit card(!), THE WORLD WAS MY SHOPPING MALL!!!11!!1

 

Except.

I worked so hard to get to this point – of finally! having a decent income that I didn’t need to closely scrutinize and scrimp and pinch to make ends meet – why would I just throw it all away? 

Especially when I realized just how powerful money is as a tool. It can do so much for you, or at least – you can make it do so much for you. My cash crunch cross-fit taught me how to mold it, stretch it, and put it to work so I got the most bang for my buck. I kept my purse on a tight leash and made sure it never ran away or bit me in the ass.

If there’s one thing I learnt: Money is your servant, money is your slave – it’s not meant to be the other way round so don’t ever get that backwards.

So that’s perhaps the story of how my journey into personal finance began. As I mentioned, I live a more comfortable life now, alhamdulillah, and I don’t have to keep an eye on every cent and penny that leaves my bank account. I buy flat whites and cappucinos, and if I wanted strawberries and prawns, I’d be able to have strawberries and prawns guilt-free! (Not in a single dish, of course. Ew.)

And yet, in the three years since starting work and earning my own income, I’ve found myself doing a lot of leisure reading on personal finance. The natural questions began to pop up – how much should I aim to save? Is there a specific “best way to save”? Is personal finance simply about saving money? Or is there more to it?

I suppose now, after many long months of doing my own personal reading and mulling it over and cooking it up, I’m in the process of transcribing the rather large inventory of mental notes I’ve built up. I hope you find something useful – see you in the next one 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Sunday stories: Being broke, finding eureka & making it work

    • If the circumstances weren’t so limiting I might not have developed the discipline, so I suppose the most trying times teach us the best lessons! Now that I’m financially comfortable and have more wiggle room, I’m definitely less meticulous and less tightfisted. But I do still keep an eye on how I’m doing 🙂

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