The happiness money brings you: Enabling the dreams of loved ones
By Clara How, Sep 20, 2020
Money brings freedom, control, responsibility. It also makes one’s dreams come to life: a forever home, a car, a vacation to remember, a coveted possession. But for those who have dependents, money is also needed to make their dreams come true.
This was the case for Charlene Leung, 40. Since her university years, she quickly realised that she had to step up to provide financial support for her family. For years, she set aside money from her salary to provide for her younger siblings’ education. Here’s how she got it done: by being thrifty, but by also realising that if she proved herself as a valuable asset to her company, she would reap financial rewards.
In this third story in our series “The happiness money buys you”, Charlene shares her perspective as a mother, a business owner and a hustler. She recognises that money has provided materially for her family, but it is also not the be all and end all to their happiness.
As a child and teenager, I was oblivious to the value of money. I didn’t think about where it came from, and all my material needs came easily. If I wanted a doll, the entire dollhouse would be there. We lived in a terrace house, had a family car, and we went on holidays twice a year. I never felt like I wanted for anything.
When I raised the idea that I wanted to study abroad for university, my parents didn’t object — their only condition was that I go to Australia, where my aunt’s family lived. I figured that they wanted a family member to look out for me, and we came up with an arrangement that I would live with them during the course of my degree. My dad did say that he needed to take a loan to pay for school fees, but I didn’t think much of it. I had other friends whose parents also had to take out loans to pay for their fees, so I thought it was the norm.
So I left Singapore for Australia, and moved in with my aunt, uncle and cousin. They were such a loving family, and were so welcoming to me. It was only when I came home to attend my older brother’s wedding did I realise the truth: that my parents were badly hit by the economic downturn. The day after the wedding, they told us the extent of our financial struggles. My family’s business was repossessed, and assets and the family car followed suit.
That was when it hit me that this was why I had to study in Australia — because it would help my parents save on my living expenses abroad. When I flew back to Australia, I felt so indebted to my relatives. They asked nothing from me, and I didn’t know what else to give back to them except my time and support. I would later find out that my grandfather had pitched in to send me an allowance.
Having to lose tangible, physical things made me realise the gravity of the situation, and that as one of two older children in a family of four siblings, I needed to step up for my younger brothers.
At the time, I was in my early twenties, and my two younger brothers were 12 and eight years younger than me. They had yet to go to university, and I didn’t want them to struggle and miss out on an education. I took care of my youngest brother since he was a baby, and he feels like my own son.
At the time, I was dating my boyfriend, who would become my husband. Because he was also studying in Australia, he became the one person who really helped me shift my priorities in life. I came from an upbringing where I had everything, but his family was not as comfortable.
He shared with me how he worked odd jobs and made his own pocket money since he was nine, and even paid for his own school fees. He remembered the joy on his older brother’s face when he bought him games with the money he made, which he also shared with his mum and treats for friends.
Listening to his stories made me feel like a silver spoon kid — sheltered and embarrassed. I thought: “It’s time I grew up.”
It didn’t take me long to adjust, because I didn’t have much of a choice. Because I didn’t have a large allowance, I lived on less than two meals a day, and diverted all my focus on doing well in pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. Once I graduated and returned to Singapore, it was a no brainer that I had to choose a job that would give me the most money.
I applied for several positions, and was offered a junior role in the banking sector. It was a starting pay of $1,800, which seemed a little low to me. At the same time, I was also offered a role in a prominent advertising agency, which offered me a salary of $3,500. In hindsight, perhaps the banking job would have been more financially lucrative over time, but back then, it seemed natural to go for the advertising job since it was also something I was interested in, so I did.
Out of my $3,500 salary, I would give $2,000 to my family. The money went to family expenses, but also towards saving for my brothers’ education. My older brother, who was also in the workforce, did the same. Between us, we decided to pool this money towards helping the family.
My philosophy when it comes to work is to maximise my wage per hour. I will always try to be in a position where I can earn the most amount of money for the time that I spend at work.
To make myself valuable to the company, I tried to overdeliver, even if it meant working overtime or foregoing social activities. At review sessions, I would ask for my efforts to be remunerated accordingly with a pay raise or promotion, and justify them with the hard work that I had done.
In those early stages of my career, the salary package was the only deciding factor for my career path. It was the only means to get my brothers through school — I didn’t know any other way.
In agency life, the turnaround time tends to be around two years. As much as I loved the portfolios I managed and colleagues at work, I’d forego them and move on to a better paying job. Some of my former employers countered me with a better salary, and I would see which offer held the better salary. Over the years, I have moved between four agencies, before staying at the last agency for eight years.
I continued to set aside $2,000 for my family, even as my salary increased. This meant that I was finally able to save for myself. But if I received a bonus, I would try to buy something for my brothers, like a computer. I was honest with them about our financial situation, because I didn’t agree with how we were kept in the dark for so long. My brothers have always been very sensible and appreciative, and have never asked for more. Till today, they remain very thrifty.
I supported my younger brothers for six years with the help of my older brother. Together, we contributed to our siblings’ education: one would enrol in a private university in Singapore, and another attended university in Hong Kong.
If not for my family, I don’t think I would have been so driven, because I wouldn’t have a reason to be so ambitious. I would probably have continued with my old lifestyle of shopping and socialising with my friends in the clubs. Looking back, I used to go out at night three or four times a week. Those were great times, but I didn’t regret having to leave them behind.
I thought: “Yes, this $2,000 is going out of my account, but do I really need it right now? I don’t.” I transferred all my energy to focus on work and upskill myself, so I could become very good at what I do. This gave me a reason for what I was doing.
I believe that if you have no meaning, and no real push behind what you do, you will never reach your fullest potential. It was the urgency that drove me, and I tried to stay as positive as I could. If I was undergoing a difficult period at work, I told myself that this is an opportunity to grow into a new role, and if I don’t put in my 100 per cent, I would never be good at it. This way, I didn’t see myself as a victim.
For example, I initially didn’t like working with technology focused brands, but I pushed on because I knew that these brands were likely to yield better returns. Because they are technical and specialised, there would be few who excelled in this area, which resulted in a higher pay. It was hard work, but over the years, I’ve grown to like it.
In the later years of my career when I no longer needed to support my brothers, I continued to aim for monetary rewards. But the motivation was different: I saw what I was paid as an indication of how much the company valued me.
Marriage and having children also gave new perspectives to the value of money. After I got married, there were six of us living in my parents’ five bedroom HDB flat, and the family’s financial status was still not quite stable. We thought about staying with family or in-laws, but decided that we wanted our own place. We saved up, took loans and borrowed money from family to purchase a flat, and eventually paid everything off between the two of us with our salaries (my husband works in the design industry).
With children, they were another reason to save. I couldn’t always rely on family and privilege to bail us out — my children would have to depend on my husband and I. I didn’t want history to repeat itself.
On top of looking for opportunities within my work, I also kept an eye out of opportunities elsewhere. Following my belief of maximising my wage per hour, I started to teach dance in my spare time, where I was paid per hour. The rationale was that with one job, I can cover expenses and save a little, but with a second job, I could save a lot more.
I eventually founded Slap, a pole dance studio, with my partners. I had negotiated a flexible work arrangement with my advertising firm, because I wanted more time for myself and my young son.
Being a businesswoman didn’t come naturally to me, but with my husband’s advice, we were able to restructure and delegate the running of the studio so that I was able to manage both careers, and spend time with my family. I’m fortunate that my employers and studio partners have a lot of trust in me — I have been working with them for a long time, and they know that I will get my work done.
Now that my brothers are independent and are earning money of their own, my priority is time with my family and children. To me, money is an enabler of happiness for my family.
My husband has a green thumb, and if he wants to buy an exotic plant for his collection, I would want him to be able to spend that money. If my son wants to eat sushi for dinner, or we want to take our kids to Disneyland, we want to make this happen for them. Time and money are now the driving forces for me to enable the dreams of my loved ones.
I have remained thrifty ever since returning from Australia: I don’t buy anything we don’t need, and if we go out for a meal, we spend within reason. Aside from the money that goes into insurance, at least 50 percent of my salary goes into saving. But as much as I’m careful, I don’t want to go to the extreme in saving, because it also creates stress. Life is already stressful enough!
Even though the early years of my adulthood were tough, I feel happy with where my life is at now. My relationships are good, especially with my family. Without my older brother to share the financial load, I wouldn’t know what I would have done. As for my younger brothers, I never expected anything from them in return, but I can see how appreciative they are, till today. As children, I wasn’t as close to my second younger brother, but over time, the relationship flourished. I’ve become his go-to person for advice, and he’s now looking to move to an apartment close to me. Whenever I need help and call them, they are always so readily available.
Recently, I offered to pay for the renovation for my youngest brother’s bedroom. He said that he didn’t need much, and only asked for inexpensive furniture. My siblings are so considerate, and so caring towards my kids. Now that I’m on the receiving end of their time and care, it warms me. It makes me feel good.
Sometimes, you have to go through something extreme together to forge that bond and become closer. That’s what I feel has happened with my siblings and I.
There was a point in my early twenties where I felt like I was surrounded by people who didn’t seem to have any cares about money. I would wonder, “why don’t I have a life like that? Why does all our money have to come from me?” But if I were to dwell on that thought, it would only make me unhappy.
For every bad side of the coin there is a good one. I truly believe that as much as money is important and can buy happiness, we can’t hold on to it too tightly. There are many sides to every story, and many chapters in a book. I choose my side of the story, and the chapter that I want to read.
Photos provided by Charlene.
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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