If you think that landing your first job will be the solution to your financial woes as a student, you might want to think again, says Segment Manager Alexstine Aw.
Here’s my story: I studied overseas and earned my degree, returned from a graduation trip and finally landed my first "adult" job with a proper salary. It’s a fairly common scenario.
In the course of my first working year, I now realise that the real challenge was not in crossing these milestones at all. In fact, a daunting frontier has emerged, for what seems like it’s going to be an eternity: life itself.
I want to be sensible with my new paycheck, but I also don’t want to grow up too soon either!
However, if, like me, you are suddenly plagued with "grown-up" concerns — disposable income, home ownership and the ability to live and retire comfortably — you may also have been struck with a similar thought: to navigate life, I need to map out a way to save money. But how do I do that?
Here are my three top tips:
1. Have a Look at Your Lifestyle Let’s get it straight: I would not be even familiar with this topic if I was receiving an investment banker’s monthly income. Unlike those rarefied wolves of Wall Street, I certainly do not have the means to drive Ferraris and splash out on luxury goods. In fact, the only gold and cash vault I have even a chance of seeing is in J.K Rowling’s fantasy Gringotts.
What it comes down to, then, is really about adjusting lifestyle expectations. When drawing an allowance from my mum and dad’s pockets, I did not yet feel that financial "pinch" I now feel that I am on my own.
Every dollar I earn now is mine so splurging my paycheck on rounds of drinks or on the latest "it" bag or gadget has become more difficult to justify. Instead, I see these expenses as wasteful and perhaps will lead to future financial regret. But I am not suggesting that all fresh grads turn into home-loving recluses and alternate between two ratty T-shirts for the next decade. What I am suggesting is to moderate both lifestyle and social expenses — a key adjustment in attitude towards financial wellbeing.
The message is simple: everything in moderation. For example, have fun, but not in excess; spend, but don’t splurge.
2. Set a Budget
Perspective changes everything. I initially saw my first paycheck as a monthly in-flow of money, which made me more tempted to spend it. And by it, I mean, all of it. The novelty of earning my own money meant that I felt I had to spend all of it on myself. However, this was when I started to rethink my monthly income as a budget I allocate to various sources, before I earn the right to spend on myself.
First things first, pay off the big stuff first. From the moment your salary is credited to your account, identify big-ticket items that take up a sizeable chunk of monthly expenses. For example, if you are debt-ridden with student loans, repay those debts as quickly as you can to avoid compounding interest. If you owe your parents money or have insurance premiums to debit, these too should be paid first, before you plonk down cash on that shared holiday villa in Bali with your pals.
Another important lesson for budgeting: track your expenses. Whether you choose to jot down expenses the old school way, or use apps to track your daily, weekly or monthly expenditure, is irrelevant. What is important is that you don’t spend blindly. Keep an eye on what you buy.
Some apps allow you to keep your grimy, faded receipts in digital perpetuity, too. And trust me, getting into this habit will enable you to identify your material weaknesses — did I really spend $127 on that collector’s edition box-set of DVDs?! — and scrimp on these areas in the future.
3. Start Saving
Once you are in a more comfortable position, and have more or less settled your loans, start thinking about building a "war pantry". In other words: an amount you are comfortable stashing aside every month, for future emergencies or surprise expenses.
While marriage, home ownership, babies, health issues and retirement seem like centuries away, it is important to at least think about the next stages of your life. It may seem convenient to fall back on Central Provident Fund contributions, but do keep in mind that these funds are not liquid for you to freely use — not now, at least.
You can most certainly enjoy your fresh graduate lifestyle today, but budgeting will make life easier rather than harder. And that compound interest we talked about earlier will start to work in your favour the earlier you start saving and investing. Let’s face it, we are adults now, too.
About Alexstine Aw
Alexstine Aw is a Segment Manager at OCBC Bank. Having fun is part of his job. He enjoys food, wine, and exploring the world. You can find him @myalexlife.