I belong to the Sandwich Generation.
In truth, I am not the sandwich. I am merely the ham. My parents and children are the bread. Together, we make the sandwich.
The Sandwich Generation is not a new problem, but nobody really talks about it on a day-to-day basis (where got time?).
I know this post is long af. So if you don’t have the time to read it now, you can download it here and read it later.
We, the ham, were recently reminded via an NTUC Income advertisement about how sucky it is to be in the Sandwich Generation and how we should take financial planning seriously to make sure future generations don’t suffer the same fate as us.
The demands of a Sandwich Generation life are these.
- We want to be filial, to take good care of our parents.
- We want to give the best for our kids so that they can be happy and to realise their potential.
- We also want to achieve the desired level of living standard for ourselves, even when we are in retirement.
These become our expectations of life. The truth is that it is hard to do all of the above well without compromises on some level.
And this is what the Happiness Equation says: Happiness = Reality – Expectations
In other words, it is easier for us to be happier if our expectations are low.
We easily become unhappy when our expectations are numerous and high. Reality is never going to cave to our expectations. That is just the way it is.
Sometimes we need to recalibrate our expectations.
Maybe some of these expectations were imposed by our own parents or the society at large. These expectations ingrained in us might not be the true reflection of what we want in life.
Mark Manson has a good way to find out by inverting the question.
Instead of asking ‘what do you want in life?’, you should instead ask ‘what are you willing to struggle for?’
“Because if you want the benefits of something in life, you have to also want the costs. If you want the beach body, you have to want the sweat, the soreness, the early mornings, and the hunger pangs. If you want the yacht, you have to also want the late nights, the risky business moves, and the possibility of pissing off a person or ten thousand.”
~ Mark Manson
So re-examine your expectations. You might discover some expectations that are not worthy of your pursuit and struggles.
Identify them and drop them fast.
This does not mean indiscriminately lowering expectations to make yourself happy. Some of your expectations will be real desires.
We can absolutely turn expectations into goals we strive toward. We can be ambitious and yet be contented at the same time.
James Clear puts it well in this article:
“At no point are we dissatisfied with the current state of the rose seed. It is perfectly all right at each moment. Yet, it is also incredibly ambitious. The rose seed never stops growing. It is constantly seeking to get to the next level. Every day it is moving forward, and yet, every day it is just as it should be.”
~ James Clear
So there’s no point in being as salty as ham. We can indeed do something about our finances today (otherwise tomorrow also can lah, finish reading first).
I would like to share my views about the many financial aspects of being the sandwich generation. I am sure there will be people who disagree. Everyone is entitled to his or her view. I do what I think is best for myself and you should also do likewise.
I think it would have been useful to pen down my thoughts if this guide helps just one person.
My Quick Story
I am an only child in my family.
My parents were not wealthy but we lived comfortably without constantly worrying about putting food on the table. But they didn’t take much advantage of the unbelievable growth in Singapore’s economy – many Singaporeans have made millions from the booming property market for the past 50 years. I don’t blame them as they didn’t have the money to invest in properties in those days.
I had all the attention as a kid since I’m the only child. I used to own a ghostbuster car, a marshmallow man and whatever fancy toys we could afford. It was good while it lasted.
Now I realise that it is time to take care of my parents – alone. I have no siblings to help me out. They have saved little for their own retirement and I don’t see how their CPF alone will be sufficient.
My parents are still working today because they are still healthy and able to earn their own keep. They have never asked me for a certain amount of allowance and would accept whatever amount I gave them (unlike the dad in the Income ad, tsk tsk).
They know it isn’t easy for me as I have my own nucleus family to feed. My wife is working too, to help support our two sons and my mother-in-law.
Here’s what our sandwich looks like:
No matter how much money my wife and myself earn, there is always this nagging feeling that we might not have enough to feed all 7 mouths. Maybe this is the proverbial kiasu Singaporean trait or the prudent Asian value we have inherited. The fear of not having enough propels us to work even harder.
Often it becomes an undeniable source of stress.
I was fortunate to recognise this early enough and began taking charge of my own finances while I was in university. I reckoned that money is the most important resource in a capitalistic society. The consequences are dire when there’s a lack of it.
I started my career with the Air Force. I was paid reasonably well and I saved and invested. I eventually left the Air Force after my bond ended and started Dr Wealth.
There were a lot of things I have learnt about managing my own finances as well as my interaction with other money-savvy friends and investors.
It is now time to put my thoughts and experiences into this guide to help Singaporeans in the Sandwich Generation.
A lot of us acquire most of our networth from our career. The good news is that most of us in the Sandwich Generation are better educated than our parents – having better qualifications means we can command higher-paying jobs. But qualifications can only get us as far as an interview or your first job.
Thereafter we must be able to prove your ability beyond just grades. We need both substance and form to do well.
Most Singaporeans are lacking in form. Being good at the job is a necessity but we also have to let other people know that we are good at it too – especially our boss and his boss.
If no one knows that we are good, we will never be considered for promotion. We end up sulking at our desk and blaming our boss for not recognising our ability. It is not about ‘wayanging’. It’s about telling the world our worth.
I’m not saying that we should be a proud prick.
We need to be tactful and not come across as deliberately making an impression. It is those who have no substance and yet overplayed the form who are the most irritating people at work.
Being the Sandwich Generation does not mean we are without aspirations.
We want to do meaningful work or to follow our passion. We are subjected to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
And sometimes we have to choose between a job we love but pays little or a job we don’t really like but don’t mind doing and which pays more.
Most likely we will choose the latter but every day it feels like a small part of us die while we are at work. We question the meaning of life at times and hope that we can have enough money to get out of the rat race. We dream of early retirement.
Here enters the F**k You Money concept. I picked up this term from Nassim Taleb.
This is his definition of F**k You Money,
“a sum large enough to get most, if not all, of the advantages of wealth (the most important one being independence and the ability to only occupy your mind with matters that interest you) but not its side effects, such as having to attend a black-tie charity event and being forced to listen to a polite exposition of the details of a marble-rich house renovation.”
I like this concept because having F*** You Money means freedom.
It is a powerful life goal that will give you zest in everything you do. And hope is a powerful thing.
But you must be careful about achieving financial freedom for the sake of achieving it.
There are people who were able to quit their careers early only to find retirement too boring. We all need something to do and something to look forward to. Hence, you must know what you want to do. It is not about just having freedom. It is about having the freedom to do what you like.
Do not ever forget the second part.
In speeding up the accumulation of F*** You Money, some people may turn to entrepreneurship.
I wouldn’t recommend starting a business right out of school because it is very difficult to get the right thinking necessary at a young age.
A few people are able to but not most people. I was lucky that I didn’t have a choice then because I was bonded with the Air Force.
During my years there, I learnt a lot about myself and about how the world works. I found that I was very idealistic and realised later on that I would have failed had I started a business early. Hence, having some maturity and anchoring, in reality, would improve the odds of success in entrepreneurship.
In fact, most people are not suitable for entrepreneurship.
You have to know yourself. Yes – you can make a lot of money if you succeed but the risk of failure can be rather high.
Being in the Sandwich Generation would mean that you are not bearing the risk alone. Your dependents are taking the risk together with you.
Having the support of your close ones is important to help you through the difficult entrepreneurship journey.
If entrepreneurship is not your way, being employed until your retirement is not a bad alternative.
There are only two main ways to build wealth at a consistent basis without investing or a business – increase earnings or decrease spending.
While successful entrepreneurs can generate a lot of wealth, there can also be corporate climbers who can earn high salaries too.
If you can’t increase your earnings, you would have to decrease your spending to accumulate your F*** You Money.
It all boils down to your acceptable standard of living. I know there are people who are open to dumpster diving – getting free used stuff and unwanted but edible food. Of course, you don’t need to go to that end of the spectrum.
Singapore is an expensive place to be but there are ways to live cheaply too. It is a choice, really.
I wrote about the two ends of this spectrum in more details here.
I have had issues with saving money ever since I was young. I spent all my allowances and ang pow money as soon as I receive them.
When I joined the Air Force and started receiving a salary, I knew I had to force myself to save.
If you have the same problem as me, the following things that I did might help you.
First, I set up a regular savings program known as the POSB Save-As-You-Earn. Through that, I socked away a few hundred dollars automatically each month.
Second, I started a separate bank account to stash away all the savings. My main bank account was used to pay bills and expenses. This was to ensure that I don’t dip into my savings.
There are people who do budgeting using the envelope…
Or money jar systems
Basically, create a system to shape your behaviour to be better over the long term in a sustainable way. Not one in which you quit before you even start.
Don’t trust yourself because you will invent all sorts of stories to justify overspending.
As the famed physicist Richard Fernman said, “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Trust the system instead.
Over time you want to shift the mindset towards valuing money so that saving money becomes a habit. But don’t get me wrong. Expenses are not all bad. You still need to have nice things and experiences in life. If you need or want to spend, make sure that it is worthwhile.
One way to help you value money is to think of money in terms of life energy exchange. Most people have to work in exchange for money. For example, before you buy an LV bag, calculate the number of hours you need to work to pay for it. If the number comes out to be 400 hours or 2 months of work, it might just turn you off from buying one. Ask yourself if this item is worth that amount of hours deducted away from your life. Go for it if you still think it is worthy.
This concept is discussed at length in the book, Your Money Or Your Life.
A rule-of-thumb in deciding what to spend on is to buy experiences and not things. This principle is taken off this research about happiness.
What it implies is – do not buy a Ferrari because it comes with a lot of ownership headaches including maintenance and constantly having to find secure parking. Rent one and drive it for the experience. The memory will be lasting. Most importantly, buy your ageing parents experiences instead of things. Better to join them on those experiences. Your companionship is what they yearn for the most.
Travelling is also about buying experiences. But don’t travel if you don’t like to. I know of people who are fine with staying in Singapore doing what they like. Don’t be pressured to travel because all your social media acquaintances are. And if you travel, remember to save the best memories towards the end of the trip. This is because psychologists observe that humans remember the peak and the end of the experiences while forgetting pretty much about everything else.
As parents, we spend a lot on education to make sure our kids get the best possible chance to succeed in life. This is a result of our society over-emphasising on academic grades. It became an educational arms race and involves putting kids through countless tuition and enrichment hours. Sometimes it may make sense to use the money in other ways to develop the kids than with tuition. I wrote about more tips here.
Warren Buffett’s investing quote is also relevant when you apply it to spending, “price is what you pay, value is what you get.”
Lastly, remember to track your finances. As the saying goes in management, what gets measured gets improved.
While it is definitely good to track your expenses so you know where your money has gone to, it might burn you out on this financial journey. I did it for a year and I pretty much get a very good idea of how I spend money. I am not that disciplined to do it continuously and I leave it to you to decide what is best for you. Now I just do simple budgeting so I know which are the areas in which I tend to overspend in and I end up watching those areas more closely.
Many financial bloggers have very good advice on this. Thomas wrote about using the why you need a budget (YNAB) application. Kyith also have many ideas on how you can budget and why it might be better to track your net worth if you find expense tracking tedious. Do whatever works for you. Make sure it is something you can keep up with over a long period of time.
To conclude this section on saving money, remember these three tips: Create a system to help you save money automatically. If you have to spend, make sure it is really worthy. Track your finances but do it sustainably.
You are going to meet more than a handful of financial advisors and I believe you have already bought some policies. I would strongly suggest that you arm yourself with some basic knowledge about insurance.
Insurance is something we buy and put aside until the next review some years later or when life circumstances change. It takes a lot of time to follow the developments in the insurance industry and I believe it is not a necessary time expense. Let the professionals do their work and let them recommend the best policy in the market at that point in time.
Your job is to understand the first principles of the industry enough to ask the right questions. Your job is also to be able to discern between the good and bad advisors out there.
The topic of insurance can be confusing because of the way products are structured and bundled together for sale. Let us take a step back to understand them holistically. Below are the common terms that you will encounter often.
- Hospitalisation: Singaporeans are all covered by the basic MediShield Life. You can opt for an integrated shield plan to improve the coverage terms and the ward you stay.
- Life insurance: The beneficiary gets the payout if the insured dies or suffer total permanent disability (for e.g. losing both limbs, one limp not counted Hor)
- Term insurance: Similar to life insurance but the policy has no cash value. It is cheaper and for the same premium amount, you will be getting significantly more coverage.
- Partial disability: Insuring a portion of income should the insured is unable to work long term due to a physical injury or medical issue. More crucial for technical occupations such as pilots and surgeons. A small injury to their hands may render them jobless. Office workers generally don’t need this because if you can’t even work in an office, it is going to be a very serious injury. In which case, you would already qualify for other insurance payouts.
- Critical illness: Pays out when the insured contract illnesses such as cancer (the policy will state the list of critical illnesses that qualify) at late stages. There’s a sub-type known as early critical illness whereby even a stage 0 detection would qualify for a payout. Do bear in mind that early-stage policies tend to be much costlier. To me, if you can afford, early critical illness will make more sense. At later stages, the chances of dying is much higher. When that happens, your payout with term insurance is much higher and your premiums are much lower.
- Accident: If you lose or damage some body parts during an accident. Some have cash payouts if the insured was hospitalised due to an accident.
- Endowment: Hybrid of investment and insurance components. Typically for stable returns and at the same time death and total permanent disability coverage. Advisors typically like to sell this to help you achieve particular financial goals. Saving for your child’s university fees is a common one.
- Investment-Linked Policies (ILPs): Hybrid of investment and insurance components. Not the best product to get either investment or insurance exposure. The investment component will be used to fund the insurance premiums which lowers return. And you also won’t get sufficient coverage this way.
- Annuities: This is to insure against longevity risk. In other words, it provides you a stream of income during your retirement until your death.
I have two rules-of-thumb for insurance.
- Rule no. 1: Don’t worry about bills you can pay. Insure the bills you cannot afford to pay.
- Rule no. 2: The premium is affordable.
Both rules must pass.
Applying these rules, investment products would clearly be excluded. I would not buy any investment product from insurance companies.
I prefer to keep protection and investment separate.
Protection is a cost.
Trying to fulfil both protection and investment motives at the same time is like using 2-in-1 shampoo and body wash, the product is not good at doing either job. For example, I prefer to get term insurance so that I can get sufficient coverage.
It is very easy to be seduced by the projected maturity value of a life insurance policy. In contrast, term policies put people off because they see it as paying good money year after year and eventually ending up with nothing. Insurance companies are well aware of this quirk. It is much easier to peddle life and investment policies and they are by far the most expensive form of protection one can buy.
In my opinion, hospitalisation plan is the most crucial insurance. There is a reason why our Government made MediShield Life compulsory for everyone. This is because it covers the majority of healthcare costs and removes the burden of fronting it from public finance. Illnesses that are serious enough to be hospitalised would cost a lot and a hospitalisation plan should cover most of it.
You can do away with the riders to the hospitalisation plan if it is something you would rather not afford. This is because the riders usually cover the deductibles and co-insurance. deductibles are the first S$3,500 which you need to pay. Co-insurance means you need to co-pay 10% of the bill. You can buy riders to cover these payments (you can only lower co-insurance to 5% with a rider now).
Based on rule no. 1, deductibles and co-insurance tend to be manageable amounts that are not likely to deal you a major financial blow, so they are just good-to-haves.
If you have dependents who rely on you for financial support (definitely, since you are in the Sandwich Generation), you will need to insure against your death so that your dependents don’t go hungry when you are no longer around to provide for them. Use term insurance to get sufficient coverage as it is more cost-efficient to do so than life insurance. Don’t worry about getting back your money. Insurance is a cost. Drill that in your head.
The rest of the insurance are good-to-haves. For example, let’s look at an accident plan. Imagine you have lost your sight in a car accident (touch wood!). You are going to be hospitalised and that set of cost would be claimed under the hospitalisation plan. The accident plan is going to pay out a lump sum of cash. Yes, the cash will come in handy since you would not be able to work. Accident plans are usually not expensive but the policies add up. If I can only afford one, I would rather ensure that my hospitalisation plan is water tight than to commit to an accident policy.
Another example would be critical illness insurance. You may argue that early critical illness pass rule no. 1 as the cost of treatment is high. But the problem is that it is too costly for most people. Hence, it failed rule no. 2.
Insurance for pregnancy
I won’t waste time on the majority of the maternity insurance because the coverage is limited. It is unlikely you will make a claim and the claim wouldn’t be a large amount either.
But one of my advisors introduced me to a very unorthodox way of insuring for pregnancy costs. He did it for himself and he even made money off it.
I’m not sure if he would be upset since I am spilling the beans about this.
Basically there’s an expat medical insurance which even local Singaporeans can buy. The policies are actually comprehensive hospitalisation plans. They cover maternity expenses which local hospitalisation plans do not have.
Moreover the policy extends the coverage for the newborn too. This is important because you cannot buy insurance for the first 15 days of a newborn. Buying the policy via the Mother is a godsend should anything happen to the kid.
The catch is that you can only make a maternity-related claim 12 months after the policy is in force.
This policy isn’t cheap as it can cost around S$300 per month, which works out to be an annual premium of S$3,600. However, with a typical delivery would costing anything between S$8000 to S$12,000, the ROI is a good one. You just have to time your baby-making right.
Insurance for Kids
All parents want to give their best to the kids. They think that by buying insurance for their kids would superstitiously prevent bad things from happening to them. They call it peace of mind.
My policy is you should only buy what you need.
Life and term insurance are not necessary for babies because babies have no earning power. You don’t need to insure their human capital. In fact, when there are new additions to the family, it is the breadwinner/s, the parents, who need to up their insurance!
The breadwinners are the ones monetarily supporting the family and they now cannot afford to stop working. So if they are for some reason forced to leave the workforce, make sure there’s enough money left behind to raise the kids and take care of aged parents.
One argument is that there’s also total permanent disability coverage for life and term insurance.
Again, I would think it is more crucial to up the breadwinners’ coverage instead of the kids. If you have a surplus budget you can consider. And also to buy when the kids are healthier in case there are exclusions in the future should any conditions surface later.
Similarly, critical illness and accident plans are good-to-have if you can afford. I opine that critical illness would take precedence considering that the cost of treatment would be a lot higher.
A good hospitalisation plan is a must.
Buy the best-integrated shield plan. Riders are optional and good-to-have. We bought riders for our kids. My elder Son has sensitive airways and despite visiting a lot of doctors and paediatricians, his condition did not improve.
On recommendation, we found a paediatrician in Thomson Medical who could treat him.
He was hospitalised a few times for bronchitis.
A 5-day stay at Thomson Medical can cost up to $15,000 each time. Luckily they were all paid for by insurance. So yeah. Don’t scrimp on hospitalisation plans.
Insurance for Aged Parents
Being in the sandwich class means we need to take care of our parents when they do fall ill.
Few elderly folks of my parent’s generation understand insurance well enough to make informed choices.
The burden now falls upon us.
As they say, Singapore is an expensive place NOT to die.
The biggest worry is that we need to end up footing exorbitant medical bills for our parents. I have spoken to many of my peers and came to the conclusion that many of us do not pay enough attention to their parents’ insurance needs.
The rule of thumb is, if you will be called upon to foot the bill when someone in the family falls ill, you must ensure your risk of paying for them is protected.
Aged parents are unlikely to need a life or term insurance because they wouldn’t have enough human capital to justify the payout and premiums. They are no longer working and you are no longer relying on them for support anyway. So there’s no point in paying high premiums to cover death at an old age. As for disability, there’s CareShield Life which would provide some monetary support.
I am sounding like a broken record here but I cannot emphasise this enough – a hospitalisation plan is the most important policy you can purchase for your parents.
If your parents have opted for the integrated shield plan, part of the premium is likely to be paid in cash.
This is because, at their age, the cost of protection would be significant.
On top of that, you can only use Medisave to pay $300-900 per year (depending on your age) for integrated shield plan premiums. If you cannot afford the cash component, you might need to downgrade the plan to lower the premium within the allowed deduction amount. This would mean that your parents can only visit public hospitals and stay at a certain ward class.
Nominations and Will
You can make nominations to determine your beneficiaries in your insurance policies. You can also make a will to cover the beneficiaries of your insurance payouts (provided there are no nominations in the policies).
A will cannot dictate CPF payouts and you need to make separate nominations to CPF Board. If there’s no will, your assets will be determined by the Intestate Succession Act or Muslim Inheritance Law.
Money instructions at death are not the only thing we need to be concerned about. We are living longer and the chances of diseases like dementia can strike us. Should that happen, we need to have appointed someone we can trust to decide on the use of our money. You can do so via a ‘Lasting Powers of Attorney’ (LPA).
You will have a lot of dependents as a Sandwich Generation so do make these arrangements as early as possible.
Buying a Home
I’m glad I live in Singapore where the majority of our residential properties are public housing. Although prices have gone up over the years, they are still affordable for most Singaporeans.
Yes, a BTO flat can be a painful wait but if you can delay that gratification then why not? If you need a home pressingly, there are sale-of-balance flats to consider or you can even get away with a slight premium for a resale flat.
Contrary to what most Singaporeans believe, I do not see property as the only way to riches. I see my home as a shelter, not an investment. I have known friends who have sold off their first home for a handsome profit years later. However, most of them ended up upgrading and buying another more expensive property, ploughing the sales proceeds right back and taking up an even larger loan with a longer tenure.
My view is that unless you own a second property and beyond, it is difficult for you to really make good money from properties (we would cover more about investments in the latter part of this guide.)
If you use your CPF to buy a house, you would also need to pay the accrued interest when you sell it. You would have earned the CPF interest should you not use it to pay for your house. Few property investors take this into consideration.
Planning for Retirement
Sandwich Generation peeps, we should all assume that we are going to live until roughly 90-100 years old. This means we are going to spend more years in retirement than previous generations and we will need even more money to fund our golden years.
We have to take care of our own retirement years if we want to be the last Sandwich Generation.
Investing will be key to fund our retirement.
You can consider investment income and CPF in totality to provide the cash flow you need. But I would rather be more conservative and rely solely on my own investments. Whatever remains in the CPF then becomes a bonus.
This is somewhat unconventional because most people would think the opposite way – CPF is the baseline and personal investment returns are a bonus.
Do what works for you, just make sure you have a plan to fund your retirement.
CPF Life and Annuities
The Government launched CPF Life (Lifelong Income For The Elderly) Scheme in view that our people are going to live longer than they used to. It is an annuity plan which guarantees a payout in retirement ages until death occurs.
I think this is a good solution for our society but I don’t think the payout is sufficient for myself. This is the reason why I want to take control of my retirement funding and not simply rely on the CPF.
You can augment CPF Life with private annuities which are offered by insurance companies. If you believe that you would live a long life as your parents and grandparents have proven so, annuities might be a good deal for you.
Some Singaporeans believe that topping up their CPF is a good way to earn the guaranteed interest on their money. They may even transfer their CPF OA monies to CPF SA for even higher interest.
To me, it isn’t worthwhile because of the restricted use of CPF monies. Cash has a lot more uses than CPF monies. Topping up means trading the freedom or optionality away.
For example, you cannot use CPF to buy medicine or pay for medical treatment or even hire a domestic helper to help with the aged. Trading away such freedom may be a high price to pay. You don’t want to be asset-rich (high CPF savings) but cash-poor.
We must understand that the purpose of allowing individuals to top up their CPF is to make sure they have enough money for retirement. It is not for people to earn extra interest on the cash they think they don’t need. Do not be penny-wise, pound foolish.
CPF top-up for parents is an exception. If you are planning to give them allowances when they stop working, you might as well use the money to do the top-ups to earn higher interest and get tax relief at the same time.
This is my favourite topic and it is the most difficult activity for most people. We all know that we should invest in order to grow our money. But investments are volatile in nature. Some years we lose money and some years we make money. This makes it very difficult for us to handle. We want to make money and enjoy the capital guarantee at the same time.
It sounds like buying bonds would solve this problem. But we cannot assume bonds are safe because they can default too. Moreover, bonds with better credit-ratings offer very low interests, a very slow way to grow your wealth. Hence you should get exposure to some stocks to boost your gains unless you are super risk-averse and you know you cannot take fluctuation or even accept years with negative returns.
The challenges we faced in investing can be traced back to our ancestry. Our brains are not originally designed to make us good investors. We are wired to find comfort in herds and to run away from danger. We know it isn’t a good idea to buy when the masses are buying (greed drives up prices) and sell when the masses are selling (fear drives down prices) but we cannot help it because of the software that has been programmed in us.
This problem doesn’t go away even if you delegate investing to a professional. Because you can still get greedy during good times and add more capital to your fund manager or advisor to manage, and get fearful during bad times by pulling out your funds.
If you decided to invest, be prepared to lose some money to learn about the markets. In doing so, you will also learn much about yourself. Every successful investor I have met has always learned by losing money first. Sometimes for many years.
On the other hand, I believe the Sandwich Generation cannot afford NOT to invest. We have to take care of many people and at the same time must have enough for retirement. We are left with no choice but to squeeze growth out of every dollar we have.
Currently, the picture doesn’t look very rosy.
Singaporeans are underinvested. Looking at the household balance sheet, Singaporeans have about half of their assets in properties and 20% in cash. Less than 5% is in stocks, bonds and funds.
We can definitely do more to make our money work harder.
I would like to document a few approaches to tackle investments.
Delegating Investment Decisions
Most Singaporeans would find investing a very hard subject and would profess that they do not have the necessary skills to make proper investment decisions. Hence they would delegate the task to financial advisors, bankers or even Robo-advisors.
There’s nothing wrong with that but do make sure you are getting your money’s worth if you are paying someone else to invest for you.
Similar to insurance products, you need to find professionals who are the real deal, who are able to deliver returns that are better than what you can get by buying a plain vanilla low-cost fund.
Financial advisors and bankers are likely to construct portfolios consisting of stocks and bonds unit trusts. They follow the Modern Portfolio Theory which posits that allocation to different asset classes (mainly stocks and bonds) would drive most of the returns. One should diversify widely in many stocks and bonds to reduce exposure to any particular stock or bond which may underperform.
Typically the industry has three types of portfolios for you. Stable portfolios are mainly in bonds so they don’t fluctuate that much. This will be highly recommended if you are deemed to be risk-averse.
The Balance portfolios are a good mix of stocks and bonds. You get more returns than the Stable portfolios, while at the same time experiencing higher volatility. In other words, when the market declines, you will also feel it more than the investors who have opted for the more stable option.
Lastly, the Growth portfolios are recommended to the aggressive investors who feel that they can take volatile investments. These portfolios are made up of a greater proportion of stocks.
A risk profiling exercise will determine the degree of your risk tolerance and then the relevant portfolio will be recommended to you.
Most of the time the advisors would use the company’s recommendations rather than customise the portfolios for you because the latter requires a lot more work and experience. It is ok as long as it can deliver performance.
Some advisors would offer to customise for you.
They would say that it is easier to pick funds than stocks. This is where I disagree because I think it is equally hard to make the right choice either way. While there are indeed more options in the universe of stocks, there are also tens of thousands of funds out there. Regardless of funds or stocks, the selection is not just a skill. There is also a big element of luck is involved because we do simply not know what will happen in the future.
From an investor standpoint, it is hard for you to tell luck from skill when evaluating an advisor or fund manager. Investing is far from easy.
There’s a new breed of digital advisors called Robo-advisors. You can easily set up an investment account by answering a few questions. They will size up your risk profile and investment objective and automatically recommend an investment portfolio for you. Most of them would still largely follow the Modern Portfolio Theory to build the portfolios. Some investors like them because they tend to charge lower fees. They also tend to be more fuss-free because everything can be done online. There are others who do not like Robo-advisors because they are pretty new and they lack a proven track record.
The bottom line is, you can consider delegating your investments if you don’t know how to do it, have no interest to learn, or no time to do it yourself. But you will have to pick the right people to do it because you don’t want to end up paying more fees and end up with subpar performance. Don’t ask for low fees, ask for advisors who are worth the fees.
Simple DIY Investments
If you have decided to take things in your own hands, the simplest way to go about it is to invest using one of those regular investment plans whereby you can start off from as low as S$100 per month.
You will be able to buy familiar blue-chip stocks or Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs, as the name suggests, these are funds traded on the stock exchange such that you can buy and sell as if they are stocks). Below is a comparison table of the various companies offering such investment plans. It is good to check the costs and terms before investing as the details may change from time to time.
This is one of the lowest barriers to start investing. My wife doesn’t trust anyone to invest for her and she doesn’t have the knowledge to do it herself. So I encouraged my wife to start this program and she was able to set up an account via her banking app. It was fuss-free enough for her to cross the hurdle and make her first investment.
But don’t expect it to do instant magic for you. The investments will still go up and down and sometimes the returns may be disappointing even after a few years. As I said earlier, investing is hard and you are going to experience some real heartaches along the way.
Once your capital gets bigger, you should start to consider building your own portfolio so that you can manage your risks better. While the monthly investment plan is an easy way to start and to accumulate investment capital, you would end up with a haphazard portfolio that may not meet your risk profile.
Remember also that I mentioned that the financial advisors and Robo-advisors are using the modern portfolio theory to construct the portfolio for you?
You can actually build it yourself without much fuss as well.
There are many platforms that allow you to buy unit trusts directly. You can also use ETFs too. Costs have gone down over the years and information has become more abundant for you to learn how to DIY.
I have given numerous talks on this matter and this is a recent one at an SGX event.
These portfolios are called Lazy Portfolios. As the name suggests, you do not need to spend a lot of time on it. Just a day a year to do some buy and sell for your portfolio. There are many types of Lazy Portfolios for your reference.
Permanent Portfolio is one of the Lazy Portfolios with relatively low volatility. This would help ease investors who cannot withstand large swings in their portfolio value. It was championed by Harry Browne and first described in his book, Fail-Safe Investing. Craig Rowland wrote a more detailed account on how to set up a Permanent Portfolio and the thinking behind it. I wrote a book on how to implement a Singapore Permanent Portfolio.
Active DIY investments
Active investments would give you the most amount of headaches and heartaches. Many people have tried and most have given up. It takes a lot of love and commitment for active investing to make it work.
I am not sure if this is for you. Based on statistics, most people are better off investing passively. If you think you fall into the minority category, be sure to read on.
One of the first decisions you have to make is which asset class you want to excel in.
Is it going to be properties, stocks, bonds, forex, cryptocurrency or something else?
There are a million ways to make a million dollars. You just need to be an expert in one and not become a jack of all trades. I realised that many investors keep hopping from one asset to another instead of becoming very good in one.
You need to have deep expertise and be in the top 10% in order to beat the majority of the people.
I have never met anyone who became rich because he invested in a ton of things. Usually, they got rich because of one thing and subsequently they move on to other things to diversify. So pick one asset and stick to it until you become better than most people.
I am biased towards stocks when it comes to investing. I know that real estate investing has been very popular among Singaporeans. I know people who are successful in real estate investing but I am not going to cover it here because I’m not an expert in this area. You can check out Vina’s blog about property investment.
The second decision to make is the strategy or approach you are going to use. There are many approaches even for stock investing alone. Some people go long and some go short. Some use a top-down macro approach while others do bottom-up stock picking. Some do fundamental analysis and others practise technical analysis. Some prefer a more methodical quantitative approach while others are more qualitative in their analysis.
It is thus very common for beginners to feel overwhelmed by the number of approaches and to be confused about which strategy to use.
Worse, each advice tends to contradict the next. It is hard to tell who is speaking the truth. It is hard to tell who can be trusted.
At the end of the day, no one has a complete understanding and view of the markets. It is almost impossible.
As trader Van Tharp said, “we don’t trade the markets, we trade our beliefs of the markets”.
So investing is like a religion. Everyone has his own beliefs. Their beliefs often contradict others’ beliefs. There’s no end arguing about who is right or who is better. Practise some tolerance and do what you think is right for yourself. You invest your own money and you answer for it. You don’t need to care about how others invest their money.
When I embarked on my active investing journey, I tried almost everything there is out there. I did structured warrants, trend following on stocks using CFDs, fundamentals analysis stock picking, forex trading and selling naked options on futures. I read a lot of books and attended numerous seminars and courses. Results were a mixed bag. But I persevered until I finally saw results by applying a more methodical factor-based investing approach.
It is like a rite of passage. At the end of the journey, you will discover what suits you. Think of it like dating. Some investors meet the right partner from the start while others have to try a lot more and spend more time to get to the suitable approach. You may ask how do you know if a strategy suits you. I would say if you don’t know if it does, then you have not found the right strategy yet.
Personally I practise the principles of factor-based investing. I have detailed the approach here if you are keen to find out more.
Should You Go for Investment Courses?
This has always been a controversial issue.
Investment courses are always seen as get-rich-quick promises that cost a lot and are useless in the end.
I don’t blame people adopting such a perception because indeed there are a lot of audacious promises made by various trainers to entice people to sign up.
But we know investing is a journey and a very tough one. No one can predict or control the outcome of investing. It is too easy for the high expectation to be disappointed by reality.
Dr Wealth runs investment courses.
We want to paint the reality as closely as possible to set the right expectations. We always say that investing is a long term endeavour. It is not an overnight success avenue that would provide you with immediate F*** You Money for you to quit your job the next day.
Most people are not suited for active DIY investing.
I know of investors who became successful without attending any courses. It is natural for them to they think investment courses are a waste of money and time.
But we cannot assume that everyone is self-disciplined enough to wade through uncharted waters and to eventually come out ahead. I have paid for investment courses and I felt that my learning was accelerated and I could understand things better than I could on my own.
Secondly, I could also implement an investment strategy after the class and be confronted with some real-life training. It is after testing a few investment approaches that I could decide what suits me.
It is up to you whether you think a structured way of learning would be beneficial to you.
Investing using CPF Investment Scheme and Supplementary Retirement Scheme
Some of you might be thinking of investing your CPF Ordinary Account money.
My rule is always to invest the spare cash first before touching the CPF. You must also be proficient enough to start investing your CPF monies. This is because cash has much lower opportunity cost than CPF OA funds. Deposit interest on cash is negligible but CPF OA is earning 2.5% at the time of writing.
This means that your investments have a higher hurdle rate to climb to make it worthwhile.
Those who have funds in SRS accounts should invest otherwise they will sit idle without any returns. A little-known issue is that you can end up paying more tax if you are a very good investor when you use your SRS account.
SRS can help you defer your tax to a later stage. This helps because when you withdraw money at a later age, you are at a lower tax bracket (hopefully) since you won’t be drawing a salary. But if your withdrawal amount is large due to the success of your investments, you might end up paying more taxes. Your capital and dividend gains which are not taxable when you use cash would become taxable at SRS withdrawals.
In general, I do not like to use SRS for the same reason with CPF top-ups – you would lose the freedom of money. Moreover, policies may change over time and there’s a possibility that the advantages may diminish.
There’s just so much noise in this Information Age. Basically the advent of online social media has resulted in fake news travelling faster and wider than ever in history.
It is often hard to tell the signal from the noise. For example, you can get very polarising and opposite advice about how you should manage your finances on social media. You have to think about how relevant it is for your context.
You cannot be gullible and believe everything you read or hear. You must be able to exercise critical thinking and decide what is suitable for you. Arming yourself against noise is a key skill to survive in today’s world.
Investment scams are indeed one of the most dangerous fake news ever. You’ve got scams in land banking, foreign properties, pre-IPO stocks, gold, agarwood, wine, bitcoin, etc.
There are moments in life where being the Ham in the Sandwich gets so tiresome and you feel like you could really do with some help to break out of the cycle. That is when quick get rich schemes so inviting. You are willing to take the chance because you have just put yourself into a trance. You bite it and eventually, it sets you back by $50,000.
This is not easy but you have to constantly protect yourself (and your family and friends) from such scams. Having a sceptical mind as a default would help greatly.
You can take this interesting Calling Bullshit Course to hone your critical thinking skills. It’s free and awesome.
Take things in your own hands
To be the last Sandwich Generation, you have to start taking on more responsibility. You have to believe that you have some degree of control to influence future outcomes.
Money is a core resource in a capitalistic society and you must be able to master your personal finance. You can have some control of your life as long as you can control money. The lack of it will ruin your life in almost every area. So take responsibility from today onwards.
But don’t be too competitive about money. Don’t try to keep up with the Jones’. Run your own race.
You don’t need to be richer than your childhood friend or your arch-enemy. Warren Buffett has always advocated having an inner scorecard instead of an external one.
Do you really want something?
Or is it just an act to garner validation from others around you?
As much as we want to control our outcomes in life, we are still subjected to the luck factor. Things happen and often outside of our plans. We can get lucky. We might meet misfortunes. Know what you can control and what you cannot.
For those who tend to live a more carefree life, you need to put in more control in your life.
For those who are OCDs, you need to acknowledge that life doesn’t always unfold as you plan. Stop fretting about things outside of your control.
Life will throw you a curveball once in a while. How you respond matters.
Self-help gurus have a useful equation: Event + Response = Outcome
You cannot control a bad event from happening but your response can change the outcome.
Whatever you do, don’t practise self-pity and sit there and complain about why the world is unfair to you.
Do something about it.
Every generation has its unique challenges.
My grandparents had to live through wars and worry about survival, putting food on the table on a day-to-day basis. My parents had to go through a rapid transformation of Singapore. There were no playbooks or SOPs and my grandparents weren’t able to give good advice in this new world. My parents had to figure out how to make the best out of their new environment.
Now that we have landed ourselves in the Sandwich Generation, our challenge is in having enough money to support our parents, children, as well as taking care of our own retirement. We need to start taking charge of our finances. Money becomes an ever more important subject and we need to figure it out as early as possible.
I went through many aspects of personal finance in this guide and hopefully, you would have picked up something useful.
Your career is still what you will make most of your money from. Human capital is your most valuable asset and the market will pay you for it. Your earlier years will always be about converting your life to money.
Spending as much as you earn isn’t a good idea. You need to save money. You need to start accumulating financial capital because your human capital will decline overtime.
You want to buy insurance against whatever is possible to derail you financially, within your affordability.
Don’t just save. You must invest your money. There are several ways to do it. Some higher risks, some higher effort. Pick what suits you best.
Think critically and don’t fall for bullshit. Control what you can control and don’t fret about things outside your control. Just make sure you respond as wisely as possible when events happened.
I wish us all the best in our endeavour to become the last Sandwich Generation.
For those of you who are uncertain of how to get started, or how to generate clear buy/sell prices for stocks, you can register for a seat here. Free of charge.