Aaargh! Why Can’t I Save?

If you live from pay cheque to pay cheque – the way Clara How does – but your friends are buying homes, putting aside cash for retirement, and just generally adulting, read on. She’s on a mission to change her spending habits so she can put more pennies in her piggy bank.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
If you live from pay cheque to pay cheque – the way Clara How does – but your friends are buying homes, putting aside cash for retirement, and just generally adulting, read on. She’s on a mission to change her spending habits so she can put more pennies in her piggy bank.

"If I don’t start sorting out my finances, I’m really gonna be in the doghouse."

Eva doesn’t know how much she spends every month. Or if she’s busted her budget. Or how much she’s got in her spending account. She depends on her bank statement to tell her. Out of the $3,600 salary she takes home every month, she reckons she saves $200$500 – but that figure is down to chance rather than an active desire to save. Eva admits she’s got “bad spending habits” – she takes holidays every two months, and loves to shop. “Whenever I’m bored or waiting for someone, I kill time by shopping,” she confesses. “This applies to online shopping too. It doesn’t help that I like luxury goods.”

I wish I could say that Eva’s attitude is foreign to me. But even as I’m writing this story, I’m buying myself a new Fitbit. Do I need a Fitbit? Not really. So why have I bought one? Because it’s pretty. And I work out, don’t I? So I’ll totally use it, which means it’s an investment. This thought process sums up my attitude towards money.

The perennial problem of saving has never been more real. Just a little over a decade ago, when we wanted to shop, we had to go to an actual shop and browse the racks. When we wanted to go on holiday, we visited a travel agent to arrange flights for us (gasp). Today, online shopping makes it quick and easy to get stuff we like. Plus, credit cards, Paywave, and Apple Pay all help dull the guilt that comes with reckless spending. “When it’s not tangible, it feels like we’re parting with nothing to get something we like,” says Tan Huey Min, general manager of Credit Counselling Singapore. The point is, if I can barely keep track of my spending, how do I even start saving?

My approach to saving is that it’s a work in progress. At 30, and after realising that my friends are in way better financial state than I am (able to afford their own homes, and in possession of substantial nest eggs), this Peter Pan realised she had better get down to adulting. That means being financially responsible. So I try to take charge: I start tracking my expenses. I ask a goodfriend – Paul Wong of the Advisors Alliance Group – to take me on. I get my insurancesorted. I actively try to start saving. I know full well the importance of getting my act together, but when I’m looking at how much I’m saving (barely 10 per cent in a good month), I know that it’s not enough. Especially considering I’m still single and living with my parents, which means I don’t have to pay a mortgage, and most of the bills are taken care of.


But I’m not alone in my struggles to put the pennies in my proverbial piggy bank. A survey done by HSBC last May, which polled 18,000 people in 16 countries, found that 55 per cent out of 1,007 Singaporeans had started actively looking for information to make better-informed financial decisions. And that 65 per cent of Singapore millennials had started cutting back on expenses to save for retirement. The good news is, Singaporeans are looking to retire two years earlier than others surveyed, and the figures aren’t dire – but they can always be better. After all, shouldn’t we all be looking to reduce our spending and increase our financial knowledge?

So I reach out to Paul to see if he can shed light on the situation. “Too many short-term hedonistic distractions and no long-term perspective on what is really needed for retirement,” is his short answer. It’s hardly surprising, considering the plethora of Instagrammable cafes (where avocado toast costs $15), new lipsticks, daily Grab rides and weekend trips to Bangkok that we indulge in. A caveat: There is nothing wrong with spending on any of these things. But they all add up, and if you’re not conscious of your cash flow, you could be spending $200 a month just at Starbucks alone.

His other point about not having a long-term goal is also not an earth-shaking revelation to me. What my life will be like three decades on seems too distant for me to give serious thought to right now. I know I want to be comfortable when I retire, but come on, don’t I have time to work my way there?

It’s exactly this “You can wait lah” mindset that perpetuates the saving (or lack there of) problem. When we get that promotion or a pay rise, rather than thinking “I can save more now”, it usually ends up being “I can spend more on the things that I want.” Paul chalks it up to a mentality of wanting to treat ourselves. “In Singapore, the tendency is that with greater pay comes greater stress. So we tend to spend more on activities or experiences to unwind, because we think we’ve worked hard and we deserve it,” he explains. “Plus, we know we can spend more because we know that the next pay cheque is coming.” Anna Haotanto, CEO and founder of financial advice platform The New Savvy, adds that social media has a wider impact on our spending than we realise. “Platforms like Instagram encourage It’s exactly this “You can wait lah” mindset that perpetuates the saving (or lack thereof) problem. When we get that people to want things.

It’s aspirational and convenient.” Instagram even has Shop Now buttons that take you from a post to the product page. Talk about #FOMO (that’s “fear of missing out” in millennial-speak).


I was recently on a group Skype call with my British housemates from university. One of them is looking to buy a house after years of renting, and was excitedly showing us pictures of potential homes. When the conversation turned to me, I told them I had no plans to move out yet. They didn’t say anything, but I could tell they were surprised that at 29, I was still living rent-free with Mum and Dad.

That’s one reason why we can’t save, says Paul. “Many of us don’t cultivate a general habit of saving from a young age, because there’s no inherent need to put aside money for rent and bills until we are much older.” Obviously, there are exceptions. Cassie*, 26, has been saving since she was five, a habit her mother instilled in her. Today, she saves 30 per cent of her income each month. But not everyone is like her. A large number of Singaporeans rely on our parents until we are well past our 20s, at least for our basic needs like household expenditures and paying the mortgage. “Money is also seen as a sensitive thing to talk about in our Asian culture,” comments Anna. We shy away from asking how much things cost, or how much people earn. And because many of us aren’t taught as children to be good at managing our money, it’s harder for the habit to kick in when we become adults.

Unfortunately, both Paul and Anna have also noticed that some women still depend on their guys to sort out anything finance-related. “Women tend to take charge only when they have no choice, or circumstances change because their partner has lost his job,” says Paul. While I’m still single, I do admit that finding a financially savvy partner would be a big plus (because at least one of us has to know how to divide up receipts, right?). It’s a belief that needs changing, stat. If we can claim ownership over our bodies, jobs and decisions, why not our finances?


The main problem, Anna says, is that we see saving as something that we NEED to do rather than something we WANT to do. When you think that way, saving becomes a chore, and we all know that no one likes those.

So what it comes down to is getting a wake-up call. Paul says the push factors include realising that you’re way behind all your friends in terms of getting your finances together (that’s me), reaching significant milestones in your life (buying a house, getting married, having a child) or unfortunate circumstances that require you to fork out a large sum of money (say someone in your family needs to pay huge medical bills). It’s in these moments when we realise that our approach-tosaving status quo is not enough, and we need to do something about it, however reluctantly.

But reaching the decision to actively save is one thing; the more difficult task is sticking to a plan. Temptation to spend lurks everywhere, and the thing about cutting expenditures is that it constitutes a lifestyle change. This is something that Taylor*, 28, can relate to. She only saves $200 a month out of a $6,000 salary, thanks to prioritising expensive salad bars for lunch, and pricey gym memberships at convenient locations. “It’s hard to save and have an active social life at the same time.” When we’re accustomed to little luxuries, no one likes having to form new habits that are less comfortable.

“While the catalyst to change is usually event-driven, we shouldn’t depend on external factors to push us to save,” says Anna. “Just as we plan for our careers and personal lives, we should plan our finances with intention.” She suggests finding a financial goal that actually means something to you, rather than a goal you should have or that your friends are working on.

Huey Min agrees. “Saving is a habit, and you need purpose and a motivation to keep up with it,” she says. So when coming up with a smart goal, get as specific as possible. “It’s not enough to say you want to be comfortable when you retire. What does comfortable mean? Does it mean you take a holiday every three months? Or that you’re okay with working part-time even in your old age?”

Once you’ve got that established, work backwards to figure out the sums you’ll need to get there. When Anna was 21, she knew she wanted to own her own property before she was 30. This dream drove her to create spreadsheets showing how much she needed to save to get there, and she found that because the desire for a home was so strong, compromise didn’t feel like a drag. By the time she was 28, she handed her house keys to her parents, and is now a selfmade millionaire. It may seem like an unusual comparison, but she likens the discipline to save to having a boyfriend. “If you love your boyfriend, it’s easy not to cheat on him,” she says. “So if you’re working towards something you really want, it’ll be easier not to get tempted to go off track.”


Okay, confession time – after speaking to Paul, Anna, and women who have struggled and succeeded in saving, I still don’t quite get my Eureka moment. I haven’t been suddenly reformed, or inspired to give up my $10 lunches – that wouldn’t be realistic or sustainable. What I have gained is greater awareness, and consciousness, about where my money is going and what I need to do. I’ve never had so many indepth conversations about money and my difficulties, and sharing my woes and hearing other perspectives makes me ask questions about what I want to do with my income.

So consider me schooled. I now have more discussions with my friends about saving, and they’ve started keeping me on track. I’ve downloaded the CPF app on my phone. I’ve slowly started cutting back on my variable expenses (one way is to space out my meet-ups with friends so I’m not eating out every night).

As for a long-term financial goal, I’m still working on identifying one that really means something to me. In the meantime, I’ve started to employ Paul’s recommended savings rule of thumb: 40-30-20-10. This means putting 40 per cent towards fixed expenses (since I don’t have rent, this would include bills like those for petrol), 30 per cent towards variable expenses, 20 per cent towards insurance, wealth management or retirement funds, and 10 per cent towards an emergency fund.

These are baby steps, but the point is to set yourself achievable targets that you know you can hit. My previous inertia was down to me thinking that finance was this big, scary monster that was too complex to understand. And if someone else – my parents or a financial adviser – could help me deal with it, all the better. But looking at this now with a fresh perspective, that idea seems ridiculous. If other people have slain this monster, why can’t I? If I pride myself on being independent, having control over my career, and demanding gender equality, the least I can do is remember where my last $10 went to. And if you must know, it went to supper at a kopitiam.

*Names have been changed.

New to the saving game? Start with these three steps.

If you’re at sea about how to start, here’s what Ginna Heng, CEO and co-founder of private investment firm Marvelstone Group, advises.


Find out how much and how often you can save

Track your spending to determine a pattern. If you’re mindlessly spending $150 a month on coffee, try reducing this and see if you miss the money. Do the same with non-necessities, and slowly increase the amount you save until you’ve reached a point where you feel strapped for cash. This will give you an indication of what your saving limits are. Suddenly carving out a lump sum to save will only cause withdrawal symptoms.


Create small goals

Have goals that span the next three, six, 12 and 18 months. Rather than thinking “I want to be a millionaire by 50”, go with “By the end of this year, I would like to have saved $5,000”. It’s easier to calculate how much you must save to get there. Share these goals with your friends so you’re accountable. From there, build a realistic long-term goal. Use tools like a CPF calculator (find it on the CPF site)  to see how much you’ll have in your retirement fund – it will help you make educated decisions.


Find a financial strategy that works for you

Once you’ve hit your monthly goals, you also need to ask yourself what you intend to do with the money. You may want to speak with a financial adviser on possible investment plans, or use the savings as down payment for a house or even to start a business.
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Real-women hacks to keep your spending in check:


“I’ve always had three accounts – one for daily spending, one for savings that I absolutely cannot touch, and one for my wedding and house, which is now converted to a joint account I share with my husband. It helps to calculate how much you need to spend every month. Once you subtract that from your net income and give yourself a bit of a buffer for unexpected or fun activities, the rest goes into savings.

I’ve even been able to feed my family of three on $5 a meal for an entire month. It may be difficult, but if you plan ahead and buy in bulk, it is entirely possible.” – Ashley*, 35, freelance writer and editor, who saves 20-25 per cent of her income.


“I put 15 per cent of my salary into a separate account just for things like holidays and brand-name goods. Before I dip into this account, I make sure it already has at least $3,500 in it. I like travelling and staying at nice hotels, so this helps me keep track of my spending.” – Lyla*, 27, interior designer, who saves 40-50 per cent of her income.


“I want to retire early, ideally by 45. My job is just a way for me to get there. With that goal in mind, before I buy something, I ask myself if I really need it, because it all adds up. For example, if my heels are broken, I would definitely buy a pair to replace them. But I wouldn’t buy them just because they look nice. I also keep expenses down by jogging rather than paying for a gym, and booking my plane tickets three months ahead to get cheaper prices.” – Aubrey*, 27, relationship manager in a bank, who saves 50 per cent of her income.