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The happiness money buys you: a F*ck Off Fund and control

By Clara How, Sep 10, 2020

When the editorial team at Dayre set out to do a series on money, I knew that there was one person I wanted to speak with – my good friend Grace, who is one of the best savers I know. How good? At 30 years old she has accumulated almost $190,000, which includes liquid cash, liquid investments and savings from her Central Provident Fund (CPF). 

So you can imagine my surprise when she told me that she considers herself “financially illiterate”, and that despite putting the most of her salary into savings, she was not saving up for a house, a future family, or a concrete, tangible goal. What she was saving up for was an eventuality, a hypothetical scenario.

Grace saves for a “f*ck off fund”, a term first coined by Paulette Perhach in a viral essay written in 2016, to illustrate the idea of saving for a situation which you want to f*ck off from. Should Grace need to leave a job, an unhappy relationship, or any situation that required money as an escape plan, she would have the means to use this savings to exit.  

Grace’s story is the first in our series on financial attitudes, where we speak with four women about the happiness that money brings them, and why. She tells us why saving for a “what if” scenario is so important to her, and how her relationship with money is complicated, bittersweet, and rooted in her upbringing.

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When I started earning a living at 24, I didn’t have a specific goal. I earned $2,200 at my first full time job, and would save at least 45 per cent of my original salary, which amounted to about $900 to $1,000 per month after the CPF cut. 45 per cent was my North Star simply because it seemed like a relatively impressive yet doable figure to help me save faster.

Instead of accumulating my savings for material items or a tangible future, I saved for hypothetical scenarios. I saved for the Plan Bs, and the money needed for these situations.

Today, I earn a salary that falls just under $5,000, and from that, I spend approximately $1,200. I set aside $500 a month in a separate account for daily expenses like transport and eating out, and I make sure to only spend on that card and keep within the limit. 

With more spending power now, the recurring expenses I’ve incurred since my first job include a Spotify premium subscription, a shared Netflix account, a shared New York Times account, and bigger purchases such as my gym membership ($250 a month) and regular therapy sessions ($400 a month). All these are paid for on a separate card.

It would be impossible to talk about my attitudes towards money without acknowledging my childhood. My parents were frugal, and while they provided for me materially, they made sure I knew the value of what I asked for. If I wanted a doll, my dad would tell me that it cost $40 and ask how often I would play with it. Instead of buying me a comic book which I could finish in 30 minutes, he preferred to buy me a book that would take more time to read. I was always taught to consider the return value of items.

There is a memory that has stayed with me. When I was little, my dad bought me a costume jewellery bracelet that I immediately wore on my wrist. By the time we reached the car, it had fallen off and gotten lost. My dad asked, “Why are you so careless? I just bought that.” 

The weight of his disappointment crushed me. This incident sounds insignificant but it reflected the embedded shame that would eventually form the root of my relationship with money. My parents unconsciously used money as an emotional tool – because they had provided for the family successfully without loans or debts, that was always their defence whenever I voiced criticism or initiated discussion about their parenting.

This memory reflects how I feel about money today: It is a tool of control.

I felt like I had to spend money the way they wanted it to be spent – otherwise, it wouldn’t just be a poor use of money, but that I had poor character. 

I didn’t have a very stable childhood. Before my parents divorced, they would fight every night. There would be screaming matches, door slamming, and crying. It was constant chaos, and whenever I recall those memories, I see my younger self hiding in my room under the blankets. I felt so helpless, and because I didn’t know what to do, it felt like I was living day to day, hoping that one day the noise would die down and I would finally have peace.

This feeling of constantly being unmoored manifested into a desperate need for control. But it was only when I was 17 that I started seeing how it played out in my life. I did very well academically in my first semester of polytechnic, but in my second semester, my grades fell significantly, and I dropped off the director’s list. 

I will never forget how my dad said, “You better study hard so you can enter a local university, because I cannot afford to send you overseas.” That comment evoked the sharp bitterness that I’ve come to associate with money — not having enough to escape my life in Singapore, but having too much to complain lest I appear ungrateful. 

It also made me realise how much resentment towards my parents I had carried from my childhood. Having my dad ‘withdraw’ this chance at a dream of mine felt like reliving the betrayal and hurt from childhood all over again.

I resolved: I was going to make it on my own, and money was a very physical, tangible way of exacting this control.

From then on, my educational and career decisions were almost always tied to money. I propelled myself into the top 10 per cent of my cohort. I chose to enrol in the National University of Singapore, because it was a shorter two and a half year course compared to other local universities (I had half a year exemption due to my polytechnic course). I also opted out of the Honours track to save money. I reasoned, if my parents needed me to pay them back, I wouldn’t have to pay for an extra one and a half years of tuition fees. 

At the same time, I didn’t try for a scholarship to study overseas, because being bonded to a company for years terrified me. It meant I couldn’t ‘f*ck off’ anytime I wanted. 

My first pay cheque came when I worked for eight months during my gap year before university. When I saw four figures enter my bank account each month, it felt great. That financial independence made me feel like I was finally an adult, and I didn’t need to depend on my parents to give me money. I could do what I wanted as long as I saved for it.

Because of my upbringing, money is very much tied to emotions. If I had continued financially depending on my parents, it would have been an emotional burden.

As my pay increased over the years, my savings similarly increased because I still spend approximately $1,200 a month. My self-discipline in saving is partly due to my parents — for so many birthdays, my presents were piggy banks! But it was also because of intentional, longstanding lifestyle habits that I had cultivated from young. 

Punctuality has always been a big thing in my family. I don’t take cabs because I manage to budget my time well enough to take public transport. If I do have to take cabs (if I was out late and had a few drinks), I try to make sure that I don’t have more than two or three late nights out a month. 

I love walking, and it was routine for me to go for a walk and buy food from the nearby hawker centres. Because of this, I have never ordered food delivery for myself until circuit breaker measures kicked in earlier this year. 

As for outings with friends, I’m not the sort who needs a dose of socialisation too often. As I get older, I realise I have a handful of close friends I enjoy seeing, and not having a packed social calendar means I can spend more time with them. We chat almost everyday, so seeing them frequently isn’t pertinent to the friendship.

I have a large number of international friends who I met online, and they open their homes to me when I visit them. During my trips to New York in 2016 and 2017, I stayed with one of these friends (pictured).

I have a large number of international friends who I met online, and they open their homes to me when I visit them. During my trips to New York in 2016 and 2017, I stayed with one of these friends (pictured).

When I do have a night out, I would not spend more than $70, and if I am reaching my limit of $500 for daily expenses, I would suggest meeting a friend next month where I have the budget to do so. But to clarify, whenever I cut back on social activities, it’s not always about how much I have to spend. It’s also about the value of the activity. If I’m looking to pay $100 for a night out, am I going to feel better after dancing off my stress, or feel burdened by the price tag? On different occasions, I’d answer this question differently.

Having my complicated relationship with money so steeped in shame from young, I try not to shame anyone for how they spend their money.

For example, I know that the standard advice for saving money is to stop spending on $20 brunches or $6 coffee. But to me, that advice isn’t ideal, especially if these things bring people joy and they can afford it.

I believe what works is to keep the bigger picture in mind, which is to cultivate a mindset change. If you tell yourself: “Stop spending on clothes” without figuring out the impulse that drives you to buy clothes, you’re going to find other ways to fulfil that need. I used to spend on clothes when I was in my late teens to early twenties, because it was my way of trying to impress people. But once I realised that my shopping stemmed from a need for validation and tackled that root cause, I found it easier not to spend. 

I came across the term “F*ck Off Fund” when I read an article about a woman who wished she could leave the unhappy situation she was in. I realised that this was what I wanted: if I was ever in a place that was not good for my mental health, I knew that being forced to stay there would be unhealthy.

This fund doesn’t have to be a huge amount of money; it’s essentially a comfortable amount that allows you to leave without feeling financially burdened. It can buy you time for two weeks, six months, a year, or however long you need, really.

I now have approximately $100,000 in savings, and this sum is an accumulation from my own savings since childhood, the angpaos, and the money that my parents set aside for me over the years.

These savings granted me an escape plan — from short term reprieve such as a holiday to relieve stress from work, or a longer term solution to leave unhappy situations. In terms of the former, anytime I felt like I needed a break, I would book a holiday. That’s one benefit of a f*ck off fund: it gives the ability to almost instantly make plans when you want to travel.

A friend and I booked a spontaneous trip to Norway and Iceland!

A friend and I booked a spontaneous trip to Norway and Iceland!

As for the latter: my previous job had left me emotionally and mentally drained, and I knew I could afford time out for myself before finding a new job — my savings could tide me over for around two years of unemployment, which is the maximum time I could see myself taking a sabbatical. However, I ended up landing my current gig just days after my last day, and decided to take it after requesting for a break of one and a half months. Still, knowing that I did have enough savings reduced a lot of stress.

I also made the decision last year to temporarily move out of my family home. I had started therapy for several months, and came to the conclusion that in order to properly process my childhood trauma, I needed to be in a different environment from where I grew up. I ended up renting a room for six months, at $700 a month. I had to move out during the circuit breaker period because my landlady needed the room back, and found another place for $800 a month.

My rented room for six months.

My rented room for six months.

However, because I wasn’t able to view the property in person, I only realised after I moved in that it was cramped and claustrophobic. It had little natural light, and felt dank when it rained. I knew it would affect my mental health in the long run, so after merely a month, I broke my lease and forfeited the $800 deposit.

If I didn’t have a F*ck Off Fund, I wouldn’t have been able to move out of my family home for as long as I did. I also wouldn’t have been able to break my lease without tearing myself up about the money I had lost.

I moved back home with my mom and sister — I’d processed enough emotions during therapy to be able to live in the same environment as them without getting triggered. But I know this won’t be a long term solution either. 

Buying my own home was something that my financial advisor suggested, when we assessed my finances earlier this year. When we totalled my savings, CPF and investments, the sum came to almost $200,000. 

These investments were done on my behalf by my financial advisor. Even though I’m pretty good at saving, I would still consider myself financially illiterate because I have no idea about investments, or mortgages. These are just things that I don’t have the headspace or understanding for. So what I did was to pick an advisor who I trust. I give her $300 a month to invest in stocks, with the only criteria that I need to be able to withdraw the money any time. 

Owning a property had seemed so abstract and far away when I started saving, so it wasn’t a goal that I was actively working towards. I felt the same way about a future family or children — it was hard to save towards something or someone when I didn’t have an estimate of when it was going to happen. Rather, I chose to save towards a goal of having $100,000 by the age of 30, because it felt more achievable, and didn’t have so many variables that I could not predict. 

The plan is to continue saving, and maybe buy a resale condominium towards the end of next year. I’ve started house viewings, but I’m also aware that seeing such a huge sum of money disappear from my bank account may cause my trauma to resurface. My f*ck off fund is my most tangible, visible form of control, and committing yourself to a 30-year mortgage loan feels like the epitome of losing control, as irrational as that sounds. 

But my goal is to learn to let go a little, because ironically, my need for control is what’s controlling me.

This gradual shift in mindset didn’t come because I have met my financial goals, but rather it was borne out of the need for self love and compassion — things that I’m learning as I grow older and continue going for therapy. I never thought that my relationship with money was so rooted in the intangibles. 

But I don’t regret any of the choices I made. I honestly don’t think I made much sacrifice, or that my frugal lifestyle held me back.

Having a sense of control via money was taking care of myself. It just doesn’t look like the conventional idea of self-care and self-love, where you treat yourself to the occasional indulgence.

Just because my ideas of enjoyment differ from others doesn’t mean that I’m not enjoying my life — for example, I prefer a chill meal at a food market than at an upscale restaurant.

Hiking in North Korea on a solo trip (accompanied by three guides)

Hiking in North Korea on a solo trip (accompanied by three guides)

Everyone’s relationship with money is so much more complicated than just about dollars and sensibilities — it’s invariably affected by their background and upbringing. Strictly in terms of finances, my middle class privilege has a huge part to play in setting my foundation right. This privilege allowed me to even have money to save, and also allowed my parents to set aside money for me as a child. 

So even though I’ve tapped into my f*ck off fund several times, I recognise that my privilege formed the foundation for me to do so. And as complicated as my feelings about money are, I’m proud of myself for what I’m able to achieve. For this, I am grateful.

Photos provided by Grace. You can also find her on Dayre at @graceyeoh. 

This is the first part of our series, “The happiness that money buys you”. Check in next Thursday for the second part of the series. 

 

Writer’s Note:
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. I’ve struggled with managing my money, thanks to a shopping habit and a privileged childhood. On my personal account, I chart my journey to understand the emotion behind my spending patterns. 

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