I left the rat race at 39, with $10,000 in savings

By Clara How, Dec 12, 2019

Priscilla’s life sounds worlds apart from the life that many of us know. She wakes up at dawn, has breakfast with friends, and spends the rest of the day doing whatever she likes. This could be reading, drawing, cooking or gardening. It’s a lifestyle she’s adopted since leaving her stable job of nine years in Singapore, and living the ‘kampung’ life with her husband in Malaysia. 

For many, the lure of escaping the city life and early retirement is a pretty tempting siren song, but the reality soon sets in: we think about how much we have in our savings, and what this means for our families and our lifestyles. 

When we met Priscilla, we were intrigued by her unusual outlook on life and retirement. Wanting out of the stress of Singapore’s work culture, she gave up her creature comforts of shopping and cafe meals to cut back on her spending habits. It may not be for everyone, but she’s happy with where she is now and would like to share her story.

I quit my job at the age of 39 with no intention of finding another full-time job. My friends asked, “Wow, you’ve saved up enough money to semi-retire?” I didn’t — I only had $10,000 in savings. I’m now 45, and have been living in Kulai, a town in Johor, Malaysia for the last two and a half years.

A busy kopitiam in the Chinese market, a short walk from my home.

A busy kopitiam in the Chinese market, a short walk from my home.

At the time, I was working for a large media company in Singapore for nine and a half years as a designer. Before that, I worked in Hong Kong, where I worked for 18 hours on average a day. Life as a designer isn’t easy, and it’s not just the long hours. When I decided that this was the career path for me, I had to work two part-time jobs to pay my tuition fees, because my parents didn’t have much and art school is expensive. Since turning 23, my life became all about work. I didn’t have time for myself, much less anyone else. It reached the point where I decided that I had had enough. 

I’ve always been the kind of person where it’s easy for me to let things go once I have made a decision. It’s just part of my character. If I don’t want to do something, I stop doing it. That was how I quit smoking after five years — one day I thought, “I don’t want to smoke anymore”, and that was that. If I find myself deliberating and being uncertain, that’s when I know something isn’t right. 

It’s also related to my childhood: growing up, I was a sick child with a lot of health issues, including a heart condition. I was often in and out of hospitals. It formed the mindset that life is short, and to take things as they come.

So at 39, when I saw that my health was getting affected and I was no longer happy, I decided that it was time to leave. I wanted a different lifestyle to the one that I was experiencing in Singapore, where both my husband and I were feeling the negative effects from the stress. 

Kulai is a part of Johor that I would describe as “not quite kampung, but not quite city”, because it falls in between the two. Most mornings I wake up at 5am, and I start doing the housework and feeding the stray cats. I head to the wet market at around 7am, which would already be quite crowded at this time. I spend a couple of hours there drinking teh-c, and chatting with the aunties.

I go home with the groceries, and my husband and I take turns to cook. I spend the rest of the day tending to the vegetable plot in the garden (I have sweet potato leaves, peanuts and Chinese vegetables), reading and occasionally drawing, before going to bed at 8.30pm.

We usually eat simple, home-cooked meals.

We usually eat simple, home-cooked meals.

It’s a life that’s very different to the one I left behind in Singapore, but I enjoy this lifestyle so much more.

Living here has changed me so much. In Singapore, I wasn’t a sociable person. I was always working, and I didn’t feel like I could open up to my colleagues because of office politics. I also had an unhealthy way of handling stress, where everything was projected outward: I would scold and scream at people over the phone when something went wrong. I was quite a self-centred person. 

In Kulai, I feel like I’ve slowly let down that wall I built up. When I saw how sincere the people were, I began to open up to them. My new friends were so genuine and direct in their manner of speaking, and now I feel like I can let everything go and be myself. They talk about anything and everything, and it truly feels like family. Kulai may not be a kampung, but it has a kampung spirit.

Our neighbourhood

Our neighbourhood

It wasn’t part of the plan to move to Kulai. After I quit my job, I spent the next few years freelancing, and pursuing my hobbies. My husband started to speak of moving abroad. He’s Japanese and grew up in Hokkaido, and after nine years in Singapore, he wanted a change from the city life. When he suggested a life in the countryside, I asked, where do we go? He’s an illustrator and a Japanese teacher, and his students are all based in Singapore. We can’t just give up on these students. So we considered moving to Johor Bahru where we could still be close to Singapore, but it was still too urban for our tastes. 

We ended up falling in love with Kulai when we visited a friend there. It’s not quite as accessible compared to what we’re used to, but we loved the friendliness of the people and the relaxed lifestyle. I was so inspired by how they grew their own food — you often hear of the ‘farm to table’ concept in restaurants, but it was truly the case here. We visited our friend in March 2017, and by May, we had found a place to stay. It even had mango, mangosteen, papaya trees in the backyard, and a plot to grow kangkong and long beans. 

I was recently offered a full-time job in Singapore, but I feel like I can’t leave my life in Kulai. I have a house here, a bookshop to set up (more on this later), and my husband and I are happy.

I appreciate the little things: like how pandan leaves grow everywhere, and a local friend of mine dries them out and grinds them into powder for cooking, so nothing gets wasted. I love the Hakka yong tau foo and Thunder Rice that’s famous in the region. I love how people take the time and effort to build their own homes and furniture, and it’s something I want to learn how to do as well.

Harvesting pulasan (a premium grade of rambutan)! We share them with our neighbours in exchange for their durians.

Harvesting pulasan (a premium grade of rambutan)! We share them with our neighbours in exchange for their durians.

But this lifestyle doesn’t mean that I don’t have bills to pay. I bought a flat in Singapore when I turned 35, and we also need to pay for a place to stay in Kulai, though it is a lot cheaper than in Singapore. I also provide my parents with an allowance, because I want to be good to them when they are still around. 

I manage to do this by keeping my spending low and taking on freelance jobs as a designer, which gives me the income to pay the mortgage every month and to cover my daily expenses. I recently completed a three-month contract with a Singaporean company, and lived at my old home with my parents. My husband still continues his work as an illustrator and language teacher, and both of us occasionally take the bus into Singapore for work. 

When I live in Singapore, I spend approximately SGD300 a month on food, transport and miscellaneous items. When I’m living in Malaysia, I can spend SGD200 or less a month because the standard of living is lower.

I wasn’t always so careful with money. In the past, I would spend over SGD1,000 a month on daily expenses. I would go to Starbucks for coffee, frequent cafes, and I liked shopping. But as I grew older, and with my practical husband’s influence, I started to realise that I didn’t need so many material things. I only need my books and time to read them: do I really need more?

Once I decided to move to Malaysia, I decided that I couldn’t have the best of both worlds. There were things that I would have to give up, like my cafe visits.

When I’m in Singapore, I’m grateful for good friends who know that I watch my spending. In the past, we would have dinner at cafes or restaurants, but now, we go to kopitiams. But this is something I’m also very open about: even if they didn’t suggest it, I would ask them if we could go somewhere that’s cheaper. The thing I do spend on is second-hand books. Over the years I’ve been buying them online, but I do visit our National Library frequently. I bring a suitcase of library books every time I head back into Malaysia! 

Because I’ve stopped earning a stable salary, I no longer have income coming into my Central Provident Fund (CPF). This means I’m paying off my mortgage with cash, which is stressful.  Buying a property was something that I thought was necessary, because I do believe that every Singaporean must have an asset. Since we are able to use our CPF savings to buy a flat, why not? My parents and a tenant are currently living in the flat I purchased at 35 years old (the rent also helps with income), and that’s where I stay when I come to Singapore to visit and for work.

My aim is to be debt-free, so the plan is to sell off our old flat (it’s in a central area and should fetch a good price), and purchase a new one in a cheaper location. We will use the excess money to pay off the mortgage loan. 

I would say that part of the reason why my attitude towards spending has changed is because of my husband. For an artist, he’s very practical and is very big on reducing wastage, especially food. He would prefer to repair a faulty electronic item instead of buying a new one, even though purchasing one can be cheaper than the repair cost. 

We were married in 2011. I spent $500 on a barbecue buffet at my brother’s condominium, with only 20 guests. I wanted to remember the people whom I shake hands with!

We were married in 2011. I spent $500 on a barbecue buffet at my brother’s condominium, with only 20 guests. I wanted to remember the people whom I shake hands with!

We first met online, when I was 33. I wanted to purchase one of his paintings from his website, and we had a brief email exchange in English. He invited me to his solo exhibition in Tokyo and because I had days of annual leave to clear and didn’t mind a holiday, I figured, why not?

When we met, I realised that he couldn’t speak or write English — all the emails had been translated by his friend!

He invited me to dinner, and every conversation we had was stilted because we had to keep turning to his friend to translate. I wasn’t physically attracted to him: he was 10 centimetres shorter than me, and had a beard. But I did have a good impression of his character: I found him sincere, and someone I would want as a friend.

The second time we met was when he came to send me off at Narita Airport.

The second time we met was when he came to send me off at Narita Airport.

On the day of my flight home, he gave me all his drawings from his exhibition. I was stunned. So our emails continued, with his friend helping with translation. One day, the writing of the emails became more child-like, and I realised that he was attending English classes. In the beginning, it was hard to communicate. He would send me songs, and I would listen to the lyrics. Or we would draw pictures to express ourselves. Over time, I got to know who he is as a person. 

After ‘dating’ online for a year, he came to Singapore and we travelled together. That holiday made us realise that we were serious about each other. He moved to Singapore in 2010, and having more time together helped us learn more about each other’s temperament and character.

It’s hard to explain, but we began to understand each other through body language. I know what he’s thinking when he gives me a certain look. I can tell what he’s feeling, and vice versa.

It wasn’t easy, especially when you factor in culture shock. But he made me realise that life is more than just work. I began to appreciate the friends around me, and started to ask myself why I do certain things. He sees the world differently, and while my friends may think he’s a little strange because he goes against mainstream views, that’s who he is. His favourite sentences in English are: “Why does everyone like this, I don’t...” and “Why do people do things this way, I don’t...”!

This was taken the day that he proposed.

This was taken the day that he proposed.

A year after moving to Singapore, he proposed. We were in Hokkaido to visit his parents, and he wanted to show me a lake. On the way there, he made a passing comment about “when we get married”. I thought, “Is this a proposal?” When we reached the lake, he asked the question.

I’ve always trusted my gut instinct, and when I decide to do something, I’m sure about what I want. That was how I knew I wanted to get married to him.

Polaroids of us and our wedding guests. The dress code was stripes, because I love striped clothing!

Polaroids of us and our wedding guests. The dress code was stripes, because I love striped clothing!

One important reason why I’m so happy in Kulai is because I believe moving here has been better for our marriage. My husband was so stressed in Singapore, and since we moved, he’s more relaxed and back to the person he used to be. I’m happier too: I feel more creative and inspired, and I enjoy the slower pace. The first month I came back to Singapore after moving, I noticed how everyone was rushing out of the MRT train. I realised, that used to be me.

It’s not that I don’t think that Singapore has it’s good points. It’s safe, clean, and public services are very good. I appreciate all these things more now that I’m in Malaysia, where you can go crazy sorting out your missing mail with the local postal service! Both countries have been good to me for different reasons, but I’m happy with where I’m at now. In the future, we may move to Hokkaido, or perhaps within Asia to Thailand. But we will see how things pan out.

On holiday together. My husband is 1.64m while I am 1.74m.

On holiday together. My husband is 1.64m while I am 1.74m.

For now, I’ve just finished some contract work in Singapore, and am back in Kulai. I’m hoping to set up a little secondhand bookshop in a communal house that was bought by a friend. He has invited a couple of us (including a cafe owner and some artists) to share the space. Opening a little bookshop has been something that I’ve been thinking of for a year, and I’ve been accumulating books for quite some time. I would like to encourage students in my neighbourhood to read, instead of always being on their phones.

Preparing the books for the bookstore

Preparing the books for the bookstore

There are people who hear about my lifestyle and say that they would love to experience it, but they say that they cannot because of their children, or that they cannot give up the convenience of their lives now.

I believe that if you are unhappy with where you’re at, you should do something about it. If you would like to quit your job and live overseas, you just need to learn to give some things up.

You can bring your children with you. You might have to give up your car, your condo, or buying branded bags. People tell me that it’s easy for me to say, and perhaps I can’t fully understand because I don’t have children, but I truly believe that there are always choices and options. There is always a way.

One of my favourite outdoor activities is hiking. This was taken at Kulai mountain, or Gunning Pulai.

One of my favourite outdoor activities is hiking. This was taken at Kulai mountain, or Gunning Pulai.

In the past, I remember people around me used to tell me that you need to work hard and prepare for your retirement at 60, but this mindset doesn’t work for me. I don’t consider myself fully retired, because I still work occasionally — perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I work for passion, and not 100 per cent for money. So even though I don’t have a lot in my bank account, I think I can be successful and happy in my own way.

Photos provided by Priscilla.

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