On the 25th of every month, my salary is credited into my bank account. The minute I receive notification that the funds have been received, I go to the ATM to withdraw Emily’s salary and just over $700 for Alison’s Math and Chinese tuition fees. Then I go to the nearest AXS machine and pay off my credit card bill in full – I have two cards but only use one for all monthly expenses. My income tax and maid levy are deducted from the account sometime during the month, and whatever’s left (not very much) is whatever I have to spend on myself and on the family’s meals when we buy food from the nearby tze char stall or hawker centre. I keep track of what I spend with an iPhone budgeting app.
I wasn’t always so disciplined with managing money. When K and I first married 13 years ago, we spent with abandon. We didn’t understand that credit was a risk. Before we realised what we were doing, we were in debt to the tune of $40,000. Our credit cards were always either maxed out or on the brink of being so, and we had two lines of credit that carried huge balances. Although we were both working, with K drawing a generous salary many times that of mine, we struggled madly to clear our debts.
It was very hard for me to understand just how we had gotten ourselves into this situation. Sure, we ate out all the time, but not at expensive restaurants. We hardly ever travelled as K was a workaholic. We spent a lot of money on computers but K needed them for work. OK, so I did buy a few branded bags but hey, a girl’s gotta look good, right? To feel less ashamed of our situation (we didn’t tell anyone about this and it’s the first time I’m mentioning it to anyone at all), I tried to justify our expenses as being necessary.
Of course, I now know that “necessary” is a very subjective thing. Is a meal at an expensive restaurant necessary when one at a hawker centre is just as satisfying? Must I buy a branded bag when something generic can do the job just as well? It was a very hard lesson to learn, and it took us about three years to dig ourselves out of that hole with a lot of self-discipline and self-flagellation. But we did it. I still recall vividly the joy and relief that I felt when we made that one final payment to clear a card or line of credit. Being so deeply and unnecessarily in debt was soul crushing, and I never want to feel that way again.
Now, I’m happy to say that we have gotten rid of our lines of credit. We have three credit cards between us – we each have a single card, and a joint NTUC Plus! card which we use for groceries, petrol and other recurring monthly expenses. We pay our bills in full every month. And although we now earn less money between us than we used to, we actually have some savings in the bank! We are not rich by any yardstick (we still have a mortgage, car loan and a soon-to-be-paid off renovation loan), but compared to when we were spending like there was no tomorrow, we definitely have more now.
However, I still feel anxious about the state of our finances. With a fledgling business and us relying a lot on my income and our savings, anxiety kicks in whenever the monthly bills arrive. When I’m seated in front of the teller at the bank, adrenaline courses through my veins and I find myself fidgeting nervously in the chair. My breath gets short, my heart pounds and I feel agitated, panicky – what if the money in our account has disappeared? What if our bank book statement is wrong? I also feel this way whenever I have to make decisions involving large sums of money. Anything more than a couple of hundred bucks gets me all jumpy.
I know that these are all symptoms of anxiety, so I constantly remind myself to take deep breaths and think rationally. I am at the bank to do a perfectly normal transaction, the money hasn’t gone anywhere that we don’t know about and the odds of there being an error in the bank book are slim to none. I think this money anxiety is the result of the accumulated money-related issues in my life, and it will probably always stay with me because there’s just no running away from money.
The only silver lining about this is that we are now so much more careful about our spending than before. I’ve stopped hankering after branded things and sold off almost all of the bags that I had so wantonly accumulated, we have all but stopped buying the children toys (although I still buy them books, but from second hand shops or Book Depository) and aimless window shopping has come to an end because it tempts one to spend.
Alison and Zoe are gradually coming to realise the value of money – Alison has decided that Heelys and Furbys are silly things to spend hundreds of dollars on, and Zoe is learning to appreciate the price of things and to resist the lure of the evil school bookshop. I pray that our kids will not go down the same rocky path that we did, but grow up to be prudent and sensible adults when it comes to money. God forbid that our sin of bad stewardship be perpetuated to their generation!