Budgeting | Life | Personal Finance | Relationships & Family | Article

To Save Money, They Decided on Living in JB

by Sophia | 14 Jan 2020 | 10 mins read

It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about shopping sprees in Johor, especially with the criminally good exchange rate. With our spending power tripled, we no doubt feel invincible once we cross the Causeway.

So wouldn’t that also mean thrice the savings? Perhaps some may consider it worthwhile to take it one step further — living there instead of just making frequent (and troublesome) weekend trips into JB.

One such couple did just that for the last five years.

Bryan, a teacher, and Hilary, a student care teacher, moved to JB in 2015 while continuing to work in Singapore in their respective jobs. At the time of making the big move, Bryan was only 30 years old while Hilary was 34 years old.

Curious to know their motivations and learn about the experience of these jet-setting people during their time in JB, I got in touch to have a chat.

Why Not Singapore?

Despite the obvious benefits waiting for them, this move wasn’t a mutually agreed upon decision at first. Bryan had to convince his wife that it was a sound decision — one that would benefit them both despite the distance and added hassle to crossing the Causeway for their day jobs.

“He felt we could save up more compared to staying in Singapore,” Hilary shared. “It was tougher for me because I’m a true blue Singaporean girl who preferred to be comfortable where I was. It took a lot of arguments and disagreements before we came to a mutual understanding.”

Their friends and family voiced their disagreements about the move as well, calling it a bad idea. I asked Bryan why they were met with so much resistance.

“I think it’s because no one in their circle had ever done it before. To them, it was a ludicrous idea,” he told me. “Singapore has a higher standard of living and cleanliness. They felt that there were easier ways to make money in Singapore. They also didn’t like anyone staying too far from the family, and besides, it was unnecessary since things were very good at home.”

Hilary added, “Honestly, some people thought we were crazy.”

It was a compelling argument. But the couple decided, eventually, to move ahead with their plan anyway — and it wasn’t as though they had zero support. There were still a handful of people in their lives who saw it as a bold move.

“It’s just a matter of your comfort zone and mindset,” she said.

So, their primary reason for moving?

“We wanted more time to do volunteer work, spend time with the family, and enjoy a bigger space with more amenities,” Bryan said. In essence, a better quality of life.

There was clearly a lot to gain from living in Malaysia. And one of the biggest plus points was the affordable rental that helped them to massively save over the years.

The Lower Cost of Living in JB

Run a Google search on JB and you’ll find plenty of articles raving about all the savings you’ll make at one of the many shiny megamalls just across the Causeway. It’s become a sort of tradition for the typical Singaporean to have gone to JB at least once in their lives for cheap food, groceries, or even car maintenance.

There was no doubt that the lower cost of living in JB drew them both in — especially when it came to their place of residence.

Bryan and Hilary lived in a penthouse with four bedrooms and two bathroom units. It was a spacious place, with plenty of storage and room to entertain guests in. Compared to their squeezy 3-room flat in Singapore, this was a huge upgrade for an amazing price point.

Bryan tells me that they paid $500 per month — in Singapore dollars — to rent the entire place. It was an outrageous price. In Singapore, rental for a whole flat could go up to $2,400.

But why did they only rent if prices were affordable? Bryan brought up that Malaysian law dictated that if foreigners wanted to own property, they needed to have at least $1 million* in Malaysian ringgit. Renting was thus the next best option.

*A reader pointed out that in 2020, the threshold for foreigners to purchase high rise property in Malaysia has been lowered to RM600k.

So how did they figure out the best neighbourhood to live in? After all, just two years ago, Taman Pelangi was dubbed a crime hotspot in Johor. It’s not uncommon to also hear people describe JB, as a whole, as a dangerous place to be. Living there may be cheaper, but nothing is ever perfect, even if crime there was reported to have fallen last year.

“The property you may want will depend partially on the location, the racial group you’re in, and whether or not you want to be near the Causeway,” Bryan said. “Some places are safer than others, but it’s not difficult to find out — you only have to talk to the locals to get more information.”

And as for other parts of their daily expenditure for the household and individually, Bryan and Hilary say that they’ve been able to save plenty of money over the years while living in JB.

How much? Bryan put it in simple terms:

“Literally, just take what you spend in Singapore and third it. That’s how much you’d be able to save.”

The Pros Outweigh The Cons

Savings aside, I had another question on my mind as we spoke.

“Living in JB, isn’t it a hassle to cross the Causeway everyday?”

As someone who visits JB every two to three months, unashamedly, for a good haircut at a place half an hour away from City Square Mall, I’m more than familiar with the hellish journey one has to take to cross over into Malaysia, regardless of whether it’s done on foot or in a vehicle. At immigration, queuing could take up to two hours or more.

For the last five years, Bryan and Hilary would enter and leave Singapore via motorcycle. But traffic on the Causeway is notorious. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like, enduring it every single day for five whole years.

But the couple were surprisingly optimistic about it. Bryan said it was all a matter of perspective.

“In Singapore, I worked from 7am till 6pm and beyond. Including travel, I had to be out of the flat by 6.30am and be back home around 7pm,” he said. “But in JB, I’d be out of the house by 10am with time to have brunch with my wife before sending her to work by 12.30pm. I’d finish work at 9.30pm and we’d come back at 11pm. We had much more of a family life while in JB.”

“But still, it’s a huge hassle to shuttle back and forth like that. Did it ever feel physically or mentally taxing?” I pressed.

“It was, but the increased family time genuinely made up for the traveling. The reduced hours spent at work definitely mitigated that,” he said cheerily.

“So,” I moved on, “After living there for five years, what’s the best time for someone to cross over into JB?”

“That changes from season to season, so I can’t really put an exact time on it,” Bryan said. “However, cars are always definitely jammed up on the Causeway.” He pointed out the advantages of using a more nimble motorcycle.

But he confirmed a vehicle is a must-have for this plan to work.

Traffic troubles out of the way, I brought up the question of safety while living there and asked them if anything bad had ever happened to them in JB.

Hilary jumped in at this point and gave me a brief overview of how to stay safe in Johor. “In general, stay in places that are gated and guarded,” she said. “We put padlocks on our gate and got to know our neighbours. Dress like the locals and don’t try to show off.”

She also shared one negative experience they had with a snatch thief. “We were on the bike. It was scary because we got ambushed by two other people on bikes, and one of the motorists tried to snatch my bag. I managed to pull it back, though,” she told me.

“But it was the only snatch theft incident we had in all our five years in Johor.”

Learning From Living in JB

Over the last five years, living in JB also taught the couple much about life. Bryan in particular genuinely enjoyed the culture and way of life with the locals over there.

“One of the things that struck me the most was that people in JB behaved with a lot more flexibility and consideration for one another. They’re also more relational as a people. We had neighbours who made the effort to get to know us even though we were living on different floors,” he said. “People would suggest ways to make life easier for us even though we weren’t related in any way.”

He went on, “Locals in Johor who have resources aren’t afraid to make use of them, and they often own two to three cars. They’re street smart, savvy, and good with maximising what they have. These were qualities I admired very much and found myself learning a lot from them.”

In terms of cultural differences, there were a few bumps in the road in the beginning, according to the couple.

“At first they didn’t like that we were from Singapore, because they had the stereotype in mind that all Singaporeans were stuck up and hard to deal with,” he said. “So I had to gain their respect.”

After five long years, it seemed like the couple had come out of Malaysia changed — possibly for the better. And that undoubtedly prepared them for an even bigger move; they have moved to Canada as permanent residents and are currently looking for work in Toronto.

One of the many sunset views Hilary enjoyed while living in JB.

All of this perhaps signals another prerequisite for those who are considering taking a shot at this strategy: A strong sense of adventure.

Now 35 and 40 respectively, Bryan and Hilary and look back fondly on their time in Johor.

“I felt that the environment in JB forced me to be more savvy and made me a more adaptable person in the process,” Bryan reflected to me, near the end of our conversation and catch up.

“There was something rich about staying in their land.”