Saturday, September 8, 2007

The simpler life

8 Sep 2007, ST

By Valerie Tay

SOME have wondered how my family of six manages on the single income that my husband, the sole breadwinner, brings home. Guess I could share a few tips that have been serving us well.

I'm well qualified to do so as, like some of our ministers, I handle several portfolios too. In addition to being the Minister of Home Affairs, I'm also the Minister of Education and the Minister of Finance at home. Besides juggling four kids, I also juggle the family budget and make sure I do just as good a job as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong does with the national budget, if not better.

Even if you do not find the tips I'm about to share enlightening, who knows, you might find our money-saving ways worth-a-laugh ridiculous. I know I'm still laughing at how I can put $17,000 worth of Further Tax Rebate to use since I'm not working and my spouse isn't allowed to use it.

As sure as ERP rates will keep going up, this rebate will go up in smoke too, when it expires in 2009. I'm reminded of some of the gifts I used to get during the annual office Christmas gift exchange when I was working - people do give you things you're unable to use.

Let's forget that ridiculous bit for now and focus on some really helpful tips.

First of all, the easiest thing to do is increase the size of the pie - I write freelance (and I enjoy it). It pays peanuts but, hey, it's better than nothing.

Second, we drum it into our kids that money doesn't grow on trees, nor does it pop out from the wall after pressing a few buttons. Dad has to go to work just so there's money in the bank. And besides all the new things that we buy for our kids, they also use their cousins' handed-down clothes, bikes, toys and textbooks.

Next, it helps tremendously that we've always lived on one income even when I was working and we enjoyed dual incomes in the past. We believe in living within our means by living simply. Better still, preferably slightly beneath our means, as it means that we will have a little more to put aside.

The best thing we had going for us has always been achieving zero debt - consciously and conscientiously. We drive an old car. I still remember the used-car agent's surprise when we declined a loan and wrote him a cheque for the entire sum, which wasn't much really, given that the car was a decade old.

We've entertained the idea of condo living but eventually dropped it. The thought of shouldering the burden of a long-term commitment to a new home loan put us off, and so we stayed on in contentment in an HDB flat that's fully paid for.

We use only one credit card as our brain tends to ignore the total expenditure when the figures look deceptively smaller spread out in several card statements. Our credit card bill is paid promptly by Giro. Never roll over any balance.

Another advantage of using just one credit card is in pooling the reward points earned. Always use the card instead of Nets where possible, to chalk up more points.

Direct as many bills, such as phone, Internet and newspaper subscriptions, to be paid through the card as possible.

Our no-annual-fee Maybank credit card has rewarded us with vouchers to purchase groceries at NTUC Fairprice. When shopping at Fairprice, consolidate purchases so that it hits at least S$20, at which point you earn Linkpoints which can be redeemed for Fairprice vouchers. In a year, we redeem over $100 worth of vouchers to offset our grocery bill. A family of six does eat a lot!

We don't have cable TV. Less TV means more time for kids to play imaginatively (with Lego, for example) and read voraciously.

For holidays, we travel at most twice a year to nearby destinations. We certainly can't afford to fly a family of six long-haul on one income now. In March, we drove up to Desaru for a weekend break. This December, we're heading for Krabi as we took advantage of Tiger Air's early-bird promotion. I can already smell the opportunity to make some extra bucks for the travel story that I could write on our return.

I'm not into trust funds or Reits. Being ignorant of the jargon, I just go for blue chip stocks, the ones they call dividend stocks. I can already hear the hyena-like laughter of the savvy ones out there, but who cares? I love the fact that I have pocketed thousands of dollars from dividends.

After all is said, there are always inherent risks in whatever stocks one picks (this line is to cover myself in case someone out there takes what I say seriously, only I don't put it in fine print like all those product pamphlets). Don't listen to me. I'm just a housewife - what do I know about investing?

That said, you shouldn't listen to your financial adviser or other 'experts' either. Take whatever they say with a dose of salt.

Forget about booking courts. When we feel like playing tennis or badminton, my son pops his head out to check if the public multi-purpose court across the street is being used. Often, it is available and we grab the sports bag and hightail there.

Four times a year, we make our pilgrimage to Johor Baru during the school holidays. The advantage of driving an old car like ours is that no car thief is interested.

When in JB, we eat and shop and eat, in between paying a visit to the hairdressing salon, sports shop, hardware store, pharmacy, dentist, bakery, Carrefour, mooncake shops, roadside cobbler, car workshop and, of course, the petrol station.

We had the boys' room repainted recently using paint picked up from JB. Forget about getting painters - we do the walls ourselves, one wall a time. The hubby and I do the Tom Sawyer on the kids. Heh, heh... they can't wait for their turn with the roller.

Before you run off and buy everything you see in JB, do note that not everything is cheaper over there. Arm yourself first with the knowledge of prices of stuff you need. Let's run that by again - stuff you 'need', not 'want'. There's, um, quite a difference.

Lastly, let me share with you this wonderful phrase I read in the papers, spouted by a Caucasian Zen monk (if I remember correctly): Our life is clouded by obsessions and desires. These desires distract us from the path of light. Om.

Okay, that last word didn't come from the monk. My life is a little simpler compared to some people I know. I don't have a lot of desires, so I am largely contented and happy. Still, it is not as simple as I would like it to be.

Far from it. I'm still working on fighting the little desires.

I haven't yet got to the utopia that is truly where living a simple life is. And I don't mean the place that Paris and Nicole put up at.

Though I know I'll probably never really get to that true utopia, but even if I should inch just a little closer with each passing year, I'm happy to keep on working on simplifying my life further. Wish me luck.

No, better still, why not have a go at it, too?

The writer is a full-time mother who has just started to do freelance writing.

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