I’m a domestic helper, and my five year plan is to save $14,000

By Clara How, Apr 02, 2020

For many of us, the question is usually: “How much can I save?” or “How can I be better at saving?” Very rarely do we ask, “Should I save?” because the answer is so clearly, yes. 

Money doesn’t make the world go around, but it does set in motion many things from basic needs such as food and housing to luxuries like holidays. 

When we met Siti Mujiati, 35, she was frank in telling us that until recently, she never thought of saving because no one had ever taught or advised her to. Her money went towards expenditure for herself and her family, but the future didn’t seem tangible, because she had not planned for it. 

An Indonesian single mum now working as a domestic helper in Singapore, Siti’s future is finally starting to crystallise. We met up with her one Sunday near her home, where she told us that the person she is now is far from who she was then. 

Siti now dreams big: she has a five year plan, an ambition to start her own hydroponics farm, and a mission to spread the importance of financial education to people who, like her, were previously unaware.

* * * *

When I came to Singapore, I didn’t have any plans other than to earn money and feed my daughters. In Indonesia, if you work as a helper, you are considered the lowest level in the social ladder.

Indonesians back home might like the money and presents that we bring back, but they don’t look at us the same way they would their friends. No one will look at you, because to them, you are nothing.

Many people feel this way because they think about the old history where a helper is seen as a suitable job for the poorest with no education. There are those who use bad language to mock helpers, and the government has tried to change this by encouraging Indonesians to use the term ‘asisten rumah tangga’ (household assistant). Right now, there are women who do have university degrees, but chose to be a helper to get a better salary and have a better life. But the negative perspective of a helper being the lowest of the low is still there.

But I was willing to be a helper for the sake of my daughters. I became a single mother in 2008, and supported my two children by working in a factory that manufactured spare parts for electronics. For additional cash, I would sell items to friends, and rode a motorbike with Gojek. In total, I was earning SGD500 a month, which is considered a good income. 

Other than paying for my motorbike in instalments, I did not save any money. All my money went to my expenses and to my aunt and uncle, who were looking after my children in my hometown while I was based in the outskirts of Jakarta for work.

I didn’t save because I was never told that it was a good thing to put aside money. No one around me saved.

There were saving programmes in school, but the savings ended up being used to pay for school fees. There were no further lessons on what the next steps should be, and it didn’t feel like there was anything exciting for us to save towards. 

Only the rich saved and invested, because they had the extra cash and didn’t really need the money. But for the lower and middle classes, the mindset is that money isn’t everything. It can’t buy happiness, and we only live once. As for retirement, it’s a circular problem. The kids depend on their parents even though they may already be married, and when the parents are old, they depend on the children. This doesn’t apply to every family, but a lot of the families I know are like this. 

When the factory I worked for went bankrupt in 2012, I lost my job. In Indonesia, it is very difficult to find a new job with the same salary once you are older than 24, and I was then 26. With all the new graduates coming in, companies prefer to hire them because they are younger, stronger, and more passionate. I felt like I didn’t have a choice, and decided to come to Singapore to find work. 

It has been almost eight years here, and I’ve fallen in love with the country. It’s safe, clean, and I have friends and a community here. 

It was in 2016 when I read about Aidha, an organisation that conducts financial education and confidence skills to foreign domestic workers, through Facebook. I saw my friends who had been attending courses, and how they started their own businesses. I thought, “I want to be like them one day!” 

I wanted to attend classes too, but my employers then were extremely strict and I did not have off days. Even though they were good people, they had a lot of rules (like wanting me to have short hair). I had hoped that one day their hearts would soften, but when they didn’t, eventually after six years I asked if I could leave. I explained that I was getting stressed, that my temper was changing, and that one day I wouldn’t be able to take it anymore. My employers were upset, but they understood and let me go. 

My next employers were more understanding and I was able to attend Aidha on my days off. Through the lessons, I learnt about financial planning, communication skills, and gaining confidence. 

Aidha opened my mind and eyes to what was possible. I began to hope that one day, I could start my own business. I didn’t have any skills in the past — my first employer had to teach me how to chop garlic! But I realised the importance of having savings. If I had money, even if I didn’t know how to do certain things, I can ask someone to work with or for me. 

I also made many friends. What I love about the community is that when you’re with people who share the same passion to achieve our goals, it helps to keep us on the right track.

Siti credits her mentor for the Leadership module, Ms Liza Baccay, for her guidance.

Siti credits her mentor for the Leadership module, Ms Liza Baccay, for her guidance.

In the past, money was just for my immediate needs. If I wanted something, I bought it. I was fortunate to have generous employers who gave me bonuses and gifts, and that’s how I was able to spend on big ticket items such as my phone. In hindsight, I wish I had saved that money instead. 

I couldn’t tell the difference between a need and a want. Even though I text my daughters everyday, because I don’t live with them and I cannot ‘sayang’ them, I bought them what they wanted because I felt guilty. I felt I had to make them happy. But in doing so, I was teaching them the wrong things.

I believe that money is not everything, but we do need it for everything.

It was easy enough to change my mindset about saving, but it wasn’t easy to save consistently. Using the saving skills that Aidha taught, I began to set aside half my salary. I opened two bank accounts, so I wouldn’t be tempted to spend everything in one account. After two years, I have saved $2,500. I also started to buy insurance for myself, my daughters, my aunt, and uncle. I want them to know that because they are looking after my daughters, I will take responsibility for them. 

I also explained to my family why I was saving more money instead of sending it all home. They were very understanding, and used the money I sent back (from my salary and bonuses) to help me build a home, and my parents topped up extra cash for me. It’s just a simple home, but at least it’s mine. 

For my daughters, I now tell them that they have a budget every month. If they want a new jacket, they might have to wait a few months, and if they still want it, we can consider it. In the past, I would have bought it immediately for them. They are good daughters and they understand.

If you tell children that they cannot have something, they don’t always listen, so what I try to do is teach them the value of money through my actions.

I show them that if you save a little everyday, in one month or a year, the money increases. My daughters have also started their own online shop — it’s just something they do for fun and they don’t earn much, but through this, they know that earning money is hard.

My five-year-plan is to return to my hometown and open a hydroponics farm. I have always liked nature, and I find it sad that not many people these days are willing to learn about farming. I heard about hydroponics farms years ago when I had a friend who ran one, but he stopped because his family disapproved. When he heard about my plan, he told me that he was happy to help, without charge. But I’ve also been learning what I can online, and looking into voluntary work at a hydroponics farm in Singapore. 

When Aidha taught us about starting a business, their advice was to think about an idea that isn’t easily copied. I don’t think my idea would be, because you would need land, and not many people want to become farmers. With hydroponics, you don’t need to worry about working in the heat and sun. Plus, my parents own land. If I can pay them and open the farm there, not only do I already have land, I can look after them and live near them. 

I submitted my business plan as part of Aidha’s Graduation Personal Financial Plan Competition last year, and was amazed when I won. 

An edited screenshot from Siti’s presentation. Her teacher, Mathilde Poiraudeau, commented that what stood out about Siti’s financial plan was that she had two endgoals: of becoming financially independent while helping the community. “Usually, students’ plans only focus on the former. It is also a very realistic plan that is achievable.”

An edited screenshot from Siti’s presentation. Her teacher, Mathilde Poiraudeau, commented that what stood out about Siti’s financial plan was that she had two endgoals: of becoming financially independent while helping the community. “Usually, students’ plans only focus on the former. It is also a very realistic plan that is achievable.”

My employers (my third since I came to Singapore) were really supportive: they were overseas, but they told me they would pay for my taxi fare, and advised me to go early so I could prepare for the presentation. I had spoken about my plans with them, and they understand that if their helpers have more savings and dreams, they feel happier working.

If I stick with my savings plan, I will be able to save $14,000 in five years, after deducting $5,000 to send my daughters to university.

Mathilde also commented that despite Siti being the youngest in class, she was quick to grasp concepts and asked relevant questions.

Mathilde also commented that despite Siti being the youngest in class, she was quick to grasp concepts and asked relevant questions.

I also plan to invest $2,000 in my brother’s food stall, for a return of $50 every month. This will help me grow my savings while I’m still here in Singapore.

Now that I’ve become more financially independent, I want to help my friends understand how important this is. Since I started saving and having my own money, I’ve become so much happier. I may only have over $2,000 in savings, but if I had more, I could do much more and even help others in need.

So I started a Facebook group, where members of the community can practice their English and share about financial planning. Through a friend who works overseas, I asked two Indonesian teachers who live stream English lessons and create worksheets to teach members online. Every day we have a different theme, and Monday is Money Day, where we discuss everything related to savings and share advice. I make it very clear that this is not a group where people can complain about their friends or employers. It is a group that is focused on learning, and staying positive. It’s now grown to 700 people!

Right now, I feel really happy and confident. In the words of my graduation speech: If I look back at my past, my life seemed dark. Everything looked impossible. But after I started to make a plan and take real action, my life became brighter, brighter, and brighter each day.

I would like to share with my friends that they shouldn’t be worried about asking for help. I know they are scared, but they shouldn’t be. There are so many people out there who are willing to help and teach, if you ask. Even if people back home think that we are the lowest of the low, don’t give up. If you ask the right people, they respect our job. There is nothing wrong with what we do. 

You are someone who is really important to other families. What would happen to Singapore if there were no helpers? Maybe your employer’s wife would not be able to go back to work. So you are important to a country like Singapore, and that is amazing. Don’t lose hope. Dare to dream big. When you dream big, you have hope.

* * * *

Siti is far from an isolated case in her previous lack of financial literacy. In 2018, it was reported by the World Bank that almost half of the adults in Indonesia own bank accounts, although it is a heartening increase from just 36 percent in 2014. A tangential trend continues with migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, with 74 percent not seeing the need of having a bank account, according to a study published by Experian last year. 

We discovered Siti through Aidha, and watched her graduation speech on YouTube. It struck us that while increasingly, many of us recognise the importance that domestic helpers play in our lives, their lack of financial education is not as widely discussed. It goes beyond their career — it’s an issue started from home. When we met Siti, she told us that she wants more women to hear about, understand, and feel the confidence that having a savings plan can give. 

Aside from money management classes, Aidha also conducts classes on computer skills, English, communication, business and leadership. For more information, visit aidha.org. 

Pictures provided by Siti Mujiati and Aidha. 

Writer's Note:

My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. I’ve shared about my personal struggles when it comes to saving (and adulting in general), and what it means to be the person in a relationship who earns more on my personal account at @clarahow. 

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