Lack of money is the root of all evil. –– George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain
Money is a delicate topic to broach.
Money has been a part of human history for the past 3000 years. There’s an ongoing battle over it; corruption has caused political crises, such as the Malaysia Controversy, where the suspicious transfer of US$681m into Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal bank account was claimed to be a donation by Saudi Arabia. The recent hoo-ha over Panama Papers leak is about tax evasion, and ultimately, money.
But money is a solution to many of life’s problems. Sure, money can’t buy everything, but would you rather be broke with the problems you have now, or rich with the same problems? I bet most would choose the latter. Money is a necessary evil.
Coming from a low income background, I’ve learnt how to value money. In primary school, I would skip recess just to save a couple of dollars week. When the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit, I would contemplate on whether I should get a McDonald’s ice cream cone when I wanted one, or put that 50 cents into my piggy bank. I was nine, but I knew my dad was struggling to bring home the bacon.
As a family of four, we lived in a three-room HDB flat. All four us squeezed into the master bedroom, while we left the other room for our domestic helper. You must be wondering: how could a low-income family afford a domestic helper? Because my parents had to work, often coming home late at night, they had to hire someone to take care of the kids. They worked long hours. My dad’s work involved transporting and moving heavy machinery––laborious work. I’m not sure what my mother’s job was, she wouldn’t tell. But both my parents are uneducated, and Chinese-speaking, so you can imagine the lack of job opportunities they had. But they were willing set aside part of their income to get some much-needed help at home.
When I was 11, our domestic helper stole a couple of thousands of dollars from my parents, and we sent her home. That was the end of us having domestic help. I was old enough to wash my own dishes anyway. Others may have thought that we were “rich” enough to hire a live-in domestic helper, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Money has always been tight, but my parents made sure we ate nutritiously. Growing up, we didn’t have GameBoys, PlayStation, or Xbox. I didn’t have a computer until I was 13, and I had to share it with my sister. Priorities, man.
WEALTH IS RELATIVE
We upgraded to a four-room flat when I was 13. I would still skip recess in secondary school to save money; it had become a habit at that point. Skipping meals to save money lasted until I was in my mid-twenties, when I landed a job that paid enough for me to have some money to spend on food.
Compared to families living in one-room government rental flats, we are fortunate. But of course, there are always people better off than us. It’s human nature to compare, to be envious. And envy isn’t good for one’s mental health. I guess that’s why it’s one of the seven deadly sins. Envy rears its ugly head in once in a while. I still want what my rich friends can afford.
I grew up poor. I still have days when I feel poor, but I know for a fact that I’m not really poor right now, even though I’m only taking home $600 a month working part-time. It was a choice I made. I may have to scrimp when I’m out, and but at least I can afford to go on nights out. I just have to eat cheaply and live frugally. I do have savings that I’m trying not to dip into. Some people are merely living paycheque to paycheque.
I have the luxury of working part-time, and because I’m living with my parents, I don’t have to pay rent. But I know what struggle feels like: To work full-time and study part-time in my early 20s just so I could afford to eat and pay my uni fees. Skipping a few lunches just so I could afford to treat myself to one good meal at the end of the week. Working a job that plunged me into depression, just so I could finish paying off my uni fees and save up for the Eurotrip of my dreams. To pay for my life insurance premium – which as you know, is never cheap – in full all with my own savings while my friends have theirs paid for by their parents. For my parents to borrow thousands of dollars out of my savings when I was in my early 20s. Everything I own, I bought with my hard-earned money.
To those who’ve seen me complain about being broke from time to time, I must look ridiculous, because how could a broke person afford to eat well and travel? Here’s the answer: all of life’s pleasures that I’ve been able to experience were either bestowed upon me by my previous job as a lifestyle writer (yay food tastings!), the goodwill of friends and family who occasionally buy me a meal, or because of the money I’ve saved up from working since since I was 17. I prioritise spending on travelling to broaden my horizons. That’s what’s important to me. Again, priorities.
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR PRIVILEGE
But for me to prioritise spending on travelling isn’t the same as someone from an upper-middle class family telling me they’re living “on a student budget” whilst studying in London, but eats at fancy restaurants twice a week whilst renting what looks to be a serviced apartment, and flying business class on their travels. No one who isn’t financially comfortable could afford to do that whilst living in London. Their idea of a “student budget” isn’t the same as mine. The lifestyle they’re used to isn’t one that I’ve lived. They don’t have to choose between spending on food, travel or rent. They can afford all of that.
When I see a rich person say they’re living on a “student budget”, yet living the high life, how do I feel? Quite insulted, to be honest. They’re like that kid who scored 90 out of a 100 on an exam, then tells everyone they did badly.
Wealth has become something to be ashamed of due to the moral outrage against the rich. But for the wealthy to put on the facade of “slumming it”, to say that their privileged background doesn’t play a part in giving them a comfortable life whilst they pursue their dreams – whatever it may be – is at best patronising. At worst, not only is it denigrating, it’s also harmful to the financially disadvantaged who aspire to creative professions, such as literary writer, painter, and most occupations in the Arts that require full focus and dedication without immediate income. They get this misguided idea that through sheer determination and hard work, they too can be rich and successful––it doesn’t always work out that way, not even for China’s fuerdai, but at least they can still afford to live comfortably drawing an income that most people would struggle to get by on. Going from rags to riches doesn’t happen often in this era unless you happen to be a businessman or a tech startup genius.
If you’re from an upper middle class background, or you’re financially backed by your rich parents, don’t pretend that you can’t afford anything you want. You have a safety net. You’ve probably never had to prioritise spending on one thing over the other. If you’ve never had to choose between food or clothes, a soft drink or an ice cream, travelling or rent, or even worse––nothing to choose from, you don’t know what slumming it feels like. Don’t pretend to be poor when you’re rich. It’s an insult to people who are actually poor.
Lead image by tookapic.com