Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Reflections on turning 30

I'm turning 30 this weekend and my 20s will be officially over by the start of the new week. It's nothing quite like watching the first digit of your age turn that gets you into a reflective mood. Besides, I have been writing quite a few personal finance posts lately about income, expenses and investments.

I thought it would be fun to write about my reflections for the past decade. I'm going to try writing these points in a chronological order as I take a walk down memory lane and I will also include life lessons that I picked up.  My next post, probably after my birthday this weekend, would be about my hopes for the next decade and allow me to stretch my mind to the future.


Studying overseas

I had the opportunity to study overseas in Melbourne for my undergraduate degree and I continue to be grateful to my parents for providing me with that opportunity. Even though I was able to obtain a partial international student scholarship, it still required me to tap into the family finances for funding.

Having to learn how to live by myself, cook for myself and make new friends while in a foreign environment was one of the toughest things I had to do. It really showed me how sheltered I was despite me thinking I had grown up after National Service.

Life lesson: When you are young and live with your family, learn how to budget, shop for groceries & household items, cook healthy meals and wash the dishes & clothes even though there is no need to. Don't wait until you are forced to do so when you are older and living by yourself.

Staying on after graduation

It goes without saying that one of the best things that came out from studying overseas in Melbourne was that I met my wife at university. We studied hard, played hard, made friends and had a good time during our undergraduate years. In our final year, we had to make the decision whether to stay on in Melbourne or return to Singapore after graduation.

It was 2009 and the impact of the global financial crisis resulted in many accounting firms and banks in Australia reducing the intake of their graduate programs. Gaining a position in the graduate program was a good way for an international student to obtain PR, work full-time and stay on in Australia after graduation.

As you can imagine, many international and local students applied to these graduate programs in their final year and competition was stiffer than usual due to the bad economic conditions. Job prospects were bleak and we were getting rejections constantly.

If neither one of us could obtain a role in these graduate programs, it was still possible to find entry-level jobs but it would  be more difficult and required us to apply for them after graduating. We were young and looking for work while unemployed in a foreign country didn't sound appealing especially when we had the choice to return to Singapore and be employed almost immediately.

I was of the opinion that we should stay no matter the outcome but my wife wanted us to return to Singapore if we couldn't land the graduate program role. Stress levels were already high with academic pressure from having to clear the final year modules and it got even worse with us fighting about what we should do after graduation.

My memory of this period of time is one of the most vivid among our many experiences in Australia. You could say it was a bad memory for many reasons but what happened here was actually our turning point. I had just been rejected for the last graduate program I applied to and my wife had not heard from the last graduate program she applied to in weeks.

The phone rang in the morning at 9.30am and we were still sleeping when my wife took the call. We were up late the night before studying for a test and I remembered her being groggy when answering the phone. This turned into stunned silence before she started smiling widely and thanking the person on the other line to accept the position.

I always think to myself when I look back at this on how one single event can change the course of the lives of two people. To be honest, I still have no idea whether we would have stayed on if the person had called with news of a rejection.

Life lesson: Have fun at university but remember that what you study does impact your employment prospects after graduation. Job search is like hitting your head against the wall until it or you breaks. Luck is when the wall breaks first.

Working in Melbourne and Sydney

Having worked in Singapore for more than two years now, I can safely say we were fortunate to have spent our first four years of work in Melbourne and Sydney. The work environments were friendly and conducive to learning. The working hours were decent and we got off on time by 6pm and latest by 7pm.

We still hung out with friends from our university days during the weekends but got along well with our work colleagues. Since we had no family, we had to find ways to entertain ourselves during the weekend. We spent a lot of time driving out to places like Mornington Peninsula, Great Ocean Road, Yarra Valley, Blue Mountains, Hunter Valley etc for day trips and to various suburbs for brunches, lunches and dinners.

Life lesson: If you ever have the opportunity to work overseas in a city or country that interests you, take it. It might not be a life-changing experience but the fact that you will be doing many things that are different from before will change your life somewhat.

Buying an apartment

We bought an apartment in the East several years back close to my parents-in-law for investment/home ownership purposes. If we weren't back in Singapore by the time it was completed, we were planning to rent it out. Since the apartment was completed around the same time we returned to Singapore, we decided to move into it before our wedding.

Due to the apartment's proximity to my parents-in-law's place, we carpool into work and get to enjoy home-cooked dinners on weekdays and even on the weekends. If we decide to have children, it would be convenient and useful to have additional help available.

We didn't buy a BTO from the HDB or EC because our combined monthly gross income was above both income ceilings at that time. They were including our monthly Australian PAYG tax in the combined monthly gross income calculation and the Australian dollar was stronger than the Singapore dollar then. We got frustrated and didn't explore the option of a resale flat properly.

Although we get to enjoy several benefits from staying in our current apartment, the monthly loan repayment on the mortgage is about 25% of our combined monthly gross salary. This goes up to about 50% if one of us loses our job or stops working. It would have been lower if we bought a resale flat or EC and even lower if we bought a BTO.

Life lesson: Buying a property for investment or home ownership is one of the major financial decisions you will make in your life. Think hard about the value you are getting versus the price you are paying and make sure you buy what you can afford. 

Returning to Singapore

We made one of the biggest decisions in our lives to return to Singapore in 2014. After all, we had already built a life in Australia with friends and decent careers by then. In fact, we continue to get asked about this when we share our story.

The truth is, we were getting bored in Australia and wanted to try something different. My wife and I had transitioned through the phases of undergraduate study, graduate level work and experienced level work together and found ourselves growing & maturing each time. However, each phase happened in Australia and we found ourselves wondering what it would be like to work and live in Singapore.

Since we were planning to get married in 2014, we took the opportunity to return to Singapore to build a new life for ourselves. We worked longer hours and found ourselves getting re-acquainted with old friends who had drifted apart over the years. We made new friends from work but it does get harder to change social circles as you get older. We also had to adjust to having family obligations and spending more time with our families than we were used to.

This is basically where we are at right now. In terms of our personal finance skills, we learnt the basics when we were living in Australia but only got to a more advanced level when we returned to Singapore. I guess when you are back in a familiar environment with more experience and skills, it is possible to achieve more since you have to worry less about your day to day living.

Life lesson: Don't be afraid of change and taking risks. It's almost always a good thing when you get to the end and look back.

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