In the name of saving money, Carrie (not her real name) once gave up meeting her friends for a year and a half.
“I didn’t have money,” she admitted, poking at a cheap bowl of laksa. “And when you go out with friends, you’ll always burst your budget.”
With Singapore’s cost of living, frugal habits is something to celebrate. With millennials constantly being bashed for cafe-hopping, instant gratification and avocados. I thought the frugal, woke sub-species of millennials needed some representation. Enter Carrie.
Originally from Malaysia, she lives in a shared flat with a couple of other tenants and pays rent at about $800 a month. She works as a chemist and takes home $3,000 a month in salary.
One would describe her as shy and soft-spoken upon first meeting. Despite this, Carrie communicates in a relaxed way, but it’s clear she has her reservations. But to go 1.5 years without a functioning social life? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.
“Didn’t that make you feel lonely?” I asked. Her response? A simple shrug. It didn’t seem to bother her – or maybe she didn’t want to let it affect her. After all, she was on a tight budget.
She had a similar opinion of dating and marriage, citing them as “too expensive” for her to bother with.
Putting bread on the table
Whatever it was, she similarly scrimps and saves even when it comes to food. Carrie chooses to spend as little as possible, just above the threshold where things would get uncomfortable.
“Once, I ate walnut bread for dinner every day for four months,” she shared later. “It was cheap, and the walnuts gave me energy. So, it wasn’t too bad.”
“Didn’t you get hungry at night?”
She nodded, concentrating on fishing out the remaining bits of noodles from her laksa. “But I would just sleep it off till the next morning, when it’s time for breakfast. And then do it over and over again.”
For lunch, Carrie adopts a very meticulous approach to picking her ingredients. She swears she never picks dishes that have a mix of greens and meat, because “they charge the meat price anyway.” The standard formula: pure greens, pure meat, and then eggs. She never goes above $3, thanks to some catering options available at work.
And as for home supplies and groceries, she goes all in.
“I don’t buy new bottles of soap and shampoo until I’m sure there’s nothing left,” she said. “I’ll finish using a bottle, fill it back up with water, and only buy new ones when there are no more bubbles.”
No more bubbles??
She added, “Sometimes, when things aren’t cheap enough, I’ll go to Johor and buy my groceries. But I never buy in bulk, especially for the things that you take a long time to use up, like jam or shampoo.
“But lugging groceries across the Causeway is troublesome. I don’t do it as often as I’d like.”
I asked Carrie about whether she’s ever felt frustrated at having to live this way – and not being able to spend more money.
“Of course,” she said, without hesitation. “Who wouldn’t want to live like a king? But I think, to me, saving money is more important right now.”
So, it’s time for the payoff. Carrie must be one of those success stories with a fat 6-figure sum in the bank before thirty. I asked if she had a fat savings account.
“I don’t even think my emergency fund is enough right now,” she said.
I was shook. Things didn’t add up – literally. If she was so frugal, I found it hard to believe it was hard for her to save.
With some prodding, she admitted that there was something she channeled her funds towards. Even after more poking, she refused to shed light on what this something was.
She was dressed plainly and in jeans and a T-shirt, and was slender, so it obviously wasn’t food or fashion.
Was she swamped in debt? Or perhaps she had an out of control K-pop fan obsession? (Believe me, my mind raced).
She was about to spill, but stopped even before she began, laughing nervously. “People will judge me.”
I stopped prodding. She was probably right.
The Joy of frugality
That couldn’t be all there was to a frugal millennial lifestyle, leading a life shuttered away from the rest of the world all to fund a mysterious habit.
I wanted to explore it a bit more, and went to seek out another person who led a frugal lifestyle and passed up the chance to live like a king (or in this case, queen).
Joy, 25, most recently quit her job to return to polytechnic, pursuing a diploma course she’s deeply passionate about. Her weekly routine goes like this: she spends the weekdays in school, and the weekends either working in part-time jobs or spending time with her family.
“I always prepare food for lunch,” she said. “I don’t eat too much and usually eat a non-carb meal using ingredients that I find from the fridge or leftovers from previous meals. On the weekends, when I eat with my family, I spend close to nothing on meals. I also bring a water bottle so I don’t spend money on drinks.”
As for her lifestyle, Joy doesn’t buy new clothes. “I have enough to wear, and I don’t really see a need for a change in wardrobe,” she explained.
She saves quite a bit from her frugal life, and makes sure she has enough money in the bank all the time. In a year, she managed to save $25,000 (when she worked full-time) – not an easy feat at all, which made it all the more amazing.
When asked about her reasons for savings and goals, she said, “I save money so I can help others in times of need, like when my friends need money to tide over tough periods. I enjoy being able to help unconditionally.
“I also want to retire early and do the things I love without having to worry about money.”
It was rare to hear someone talk about helping others in such a direct way – that often comes at their own expense – that I needed to know more. I asked her if she thought helping others was worth it.
“I think so,” she said. “It gives me meaning.”
I asked Joy if she had always been frugal – and whether it was because of something that happened, or how she was raised.
“I’ve always been frugal because in my growing up years, I wasn’t exposed to the outside world that much,” she said. “I didn’t know much about luxury items, and I was taught not to want them.”
As for whether or not she felt constricted by this lifestyle, Joy added: “I’m easily contented with a simple lifestyle. It’s not a big deal.”
The future, for Joy, looks like retirement at age 40, where she won’t have to “face financial burdens.” To her, attaining financial stability as early as possible can only be a “great” idea.
Now here’s an optimistic take on life – and even retirement! Here’s a person who loves sharing and giving, and it is this generosity that propels her to lead a frugal life in consumerist Singapore.
Retirement is a part of her plan as well, something that could be easily reached with habits built in frugality and a sense of financial responsibility towards oneself.
But in the end, personal goals and desires have driven these two very different individuals toward a frugal lifestyle.
While we at TSS advocate for saving for long-term goals like Joy does, and encourage readers to do the same.As for Carrie’s, although she went to extreme lengths to fund her thing – at the very least – she did not dive into debt to do so.
In the end, everybody runs their own race. But we at TSS say: all races have a finishing line – called retirement – the earlier one starts preparing for it, the better.
Edit: Clarified that Joy managed her $25,000/year savings during her working days, before going back to study.