The finance blog, Growing Your Tree of Prosperity, has been floating around the internet since 2005, so it’s arguably one of the OGs of the financial blogosphere. Christopher Ng — the financial blogger and man behind it — walks the talk, having achieved financial independence six years ago at the age of 39.
Hence, many flock to him for advice in pursuit of their own early retirement dreams. He currently conducts an early retirement class with Dr Wealth.
Not known to mince his words, Christopher shares frankly his experiences and perspectives picked up on the road to financial freedom.
What was it that motivated you to start handling your finances better, and work towards early retirement?
There are three separate events that got me to start and then ruthlessly accelerate my early retirement plan.
The first is when my mum was mis-sold an insurance policy and I made a decision never to trust an insurance agent again. The second was when a talk by a GIC fund manager was abruptly cancelled in NUS. I was told that the reason the talk was cancelled was because the university does not want too many engineers to leave the tech industry for a more lucrative sector. Finally, a colleague in Europe committed suicide after his job was outsourced. I played a small part in this outsourcing project.
These three events convinced me that the only way out is to invest my money aggressively so that I can leave the rat race before I got retrenched from my day job.
It was basically studying for the CFA 3-4 hours a day for 3 years and eating hawker food.
Similarly, why did you decide to become a financial blogger as part of that journey? Was it for passive income?
My blog earns $150 every six months. Hardly enough to earn a living. I started a blog because I was an Internet troll during my university days when I was very much reviled for calling out deception amongst my Gen X peers when they were dating each other (Why do you call him kor kor? You obviously don’t want him but want his economic resources right?).
A blog gave me a platform to continue trolling, dispensing the harsh truths about living in Singapore to readers who are sick of political correctness.
Between writing for Dr Wealth and for your own blog, Tree of Prosperity, how do you ensure you have enough meaningful and helpful content for both as a financial blogger?
I have an obsession with the notion of Thought Leadership. If one thing to be a financial blogger, but I really want to be the blogger other financial bloggers want to read. I go to Kinokuniya several times a week and have developed some instinct on what will be a hot investment or personal development topic over the next few weeks. I would then swoop in to read these books (hopefully before everyone else). You will find that many articles on my blog are mini-book reviews.
What was your biggest financial mistake?
Too many investment mistakes to count but because I am well-diversified, none of them really hurt my bottom-line as much as my biggest career mistake which was to stay too long in Hewlett Packard. My managers were too good and I should have left for the banking sector when it was hot, many years ago. I think great managers are more dangerous than bad managers. With bad managers you look for greener pastures as soon as you can. With great managers, you get boiled to death like a frog in a pot of water.
Great managers make you stay in a place for too long. A job switch timed right can mean a 20% salary increment.
If you could go back in time, what would you do differently in your own life?
I would reverse a few bad career decisions like joining the public sector. Otherwise I don’t regret turning frugality into an art form. But frugality is not for everyone; it’s generally easier for more conscientious personalities. You have to experience some dividends before you can see why frugality can be so advantageous. Otherwise, it’s just a futile exercise in self-control.
What do you think is the worst misconception that Singaporeans have about finance?
That it is impossible to retire early.
I had dividend pay-outs that exceeded my regular salary paycheck at age 39. Granted I have an above-average salary, decent educational qualifications, and an uncanny ability to really reduce my expenses and live like a hermit, but I think the finance industry is really ramping up the “Why retirement is overrated” trope lately and the sheer amount of propaganda will lead to a generation of millennials who will not even try.
What financial advice would you give to young Singaporeans who want to retire early?
We are not all born with the same talents and personal situation, but that does not mean that you should not give early retirement a shot. Unlike other goals, you might get a nice $300 dividend flow a month even if you fail after 5 years.
I think there are a lot of forces out there who want to tell you that you will not be able to make it. Maybe they are right over the long term. But even if you meet 10% of your goals, it would make a big difference in your life.
You teach early retirement/investing masterclasses – what’s the best thing about doing this?
Making new friends. The problem with reaching your 40s is that a lot of your pals will stagnate and just end up going with the flow. Even their musical tastes are stuck their early-30s (I’m a big fan of Jasmine Sokko). It’s not easy to find folks who are eager to advance themselves in their mid-life.
While I make decent money from my workshops, the price is just a hurdle to make someone commit to more personal development. These guys who attend my classes are objective, successful in their respective careers, and have very strong views on investing and financial markets – which I leverage to craft killer portfolios for me to invest in using my trainer fees.
This is my tribe. I believe my students will retire early only to find ways to make a deeper dent in the universe.
I like to be surrounded by my students.
As an early retiree and financial blogger, how would you teach children about finance?
I’ve yet to begin, but having a firm mathematical foundation is often overlooked. I just sent my daughter to coding class today and she did not enjoy it one bit.
It is not easy to adopt a Bayesian outlook in life, updating probabilities as new information becomes known. This is simply not taught in schools but kids who learn gamble or tabletop gaming at a young age develop these instincts quite well. I see parenting as getting my kids to like role-playing games. If they warm up to Dungeons & Dragons, all my problems are solved. Nothing prepares you for university-level maths and English like an obsession with tabletop games. But you have to ditch the console and be willing to calculate the odds in your head to do that. Playing Fortnite does not cut it.
What do your kids think about you being retired so early?
My kids just see me work once a week and spend most of my time rehearsing all my presentations at home. Otherwise, I sing to YouTube videos. I am probably a weird dad.
Have you helped many friends and family with their personal finance, as well?
I managed my father’s wealth for over a decade but I keep my investment skills largely to myself. People should take personal responsibility for their own finances and I don’t want to be responsible for their losses. Yesterday I had a family gathering and I was surrounded by relatives who asked me what to do about Mapletree North Asia Commercial Trust. How would I be able to predict political events in Hong Kong better than anybody else?
How did your parents teach you about finance, if at all?
I want to write a series of articles on this but I can’t stop tearing when I write about my dad who passed away in September. So far I’ve managed one article on my blog.
My dad was quite harsh and unrelenting with his money and it rubbed off on me big time. The lessons are complicated and I’m still unpacking them.
Stupidest purchases you ever made?
I have tons of e-readers at home that are too cumbersome to use regularly as I already have a mobile phone, iPad Pro and Kindle. One is a large 13-inch Boox reader that I paid $1,500 for some years ago. I also use my son as an excuse to buy toys I can’t have as a kid. He is 4 years old and has more than one Optimus Prime that looks like a toy sculpt for adult transformers fans.
So… how rich are you now?
An upper single-digit multiple of the median net-worth of the folks here. Sorry, can’t be too precise here…
If you could buy something right now (without caring about the price tag) what would it be?
A PhD in Quantitative Finance. I have non-existent material wants.
What’s the best thing about earning financial independence at 39? (Apart from being, well, financially independent!)
I think there are enough folks who brag about their care-lives of travel and not giving a f*** about reporting to a boss, so I think I’d rather talk about the worst aspects of financial independence. Maybe more fun to read.
If you are genuinely on the road to financial independence, you will become a serious threat to the self-esteem of everyone around you. If you succeed, the cognitive dissonance your friends experience will be quite destructive.
The damage doubles if you have friends in the finance industry. Many will sabotage you. Also, most of us who succeed worked so hard in our careers we don’t have a proper way of transitioning into a new identity. So, basically, you don’t have a way to explain yourself and many of friends will reveal to you how salty they really are.
The thing is that I derive a lot of satisfaction causing this cognitive dissonance to folks around me. I was bullied by rich ACS kids growing up in a landed property estate and I get a big morale boost when I get booed when I am in a competition. This is why I love bad guys in wrestling like Triple H and admire quantitative hedge fund managers bringing mathematical models to lay ruin to folks who have been analysing companies for decades.
What’s the one thing you enjoy most about being a financial blogger and sharing financial advice?
There is actually very little love for a financial blogger who “sells out” to run an investment course. Because we earn money, we must be scammers, right? I read a lot of articles that criticize the stuff I teach. These attacks are ramping up and I have no doubt that this interview will exacerbate matters for my blog and online persona.
And you know what? I am totally turned on by all the hate I’m getting from my frenemies on the web!
I know folks can’t stop criticising me but I have yet to see a single cogent argument why I should invest in a different manner. Currently, I am racking up an XIRR of over 14% unleveraged, which means that I have a rate of return over 23% on portfolios built by my students.
Sure, some bloggers predict that eventually leveraged* investors like me will eventually have a day of reckoning. Mathematically they might be right, but that day has not arrived yet.
So I say to them, “OK, boomer.”
Until then we will continue our game of multi-dimensional chess. And I’m getting richer as we speak.
*Leverage refers to taking out a loan for investment purposes, the risk is if when the value of the investment tumbles, a “margin call” event might be trigged. In this event, an investor has to deposit more money into the trading account, or be forced to sell the investments at a loss.
Do you have a favourite blog post that you think readers should know about most?
The most popular blog post as of now is:
A mark of a good troll is being factual and objective because the things that hurts the most is the objective truth. In this post, I build a scoring system to benchmark local degrees with each other. I think it violates the norms of a lot of Singaporeans who believe in values like the spirit of learning and enquiry.
But the harsh truth we’ve always known that some degrees suck, and you will struggle to break even if you sign up for the wrong degree program. I have spoken very harshly about Polytechnic students and private degree holders in previous articles and all of them have great viewership numbers.
I guess some things just need to be said.
Not a sponsored post, but check out Christopher’s next class preview if you are interested in learning from the man himself.