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Income Only Gets You So Far

Are you mentally struggling between sacrificing some instant satisfaction and that goal in the future you need to save for? It happens to most of us, most the time, unless we are really mentally strong or were born the Saving Kingdoms of Asia.

I was born in what we used to erroneously call a developing nation. I grew up listening to phrases such as "money tight", "from hand to mouth", "things haad out yah" (things are hard out here) and songs about "no tengo dinero, ni nada que dar, lo unico que tengo es amor para dar" (I don't have money nor anything to give, the only thing I have is love to give), etc. If you also grew up listening to these phrases, legend has it, you most probably come from the West.

Naturally, savings was not an option for my family. Getting credit from the local store was easy if we paid a little bit every pay day. Getting a loan to get a higher education still seems the way to go for many families who want to get ahead. Starting your own business always seems riskier in a world where the immigrant groups will form business coalitions to sell similar products for cheaper. Add this list, the local support for local brands is still in its early adoption stages.

But when I speak to locals in Taiwan, they are dumbfounded by the idea that people elsewhere do not save money. This weekend, my friend's tutee asked me, "How do we (back home) do it when we have an emergency?" I said, "I'm guessing most people rely on family and friends to get through" (as I've experienced in the past). She said, "Eventhough I have family, I will never ask them for any money. I know others would, but not me."

I found out time and time again as an adult living abroad, that the lack of sufficient funding presented a psychological invitation to stress, demotivation and depression. Many times I heard family and friends say, "I just want to disappear and go far away". For those of us that are already far away, how do we cope with this?

Without the opportunity to obtain a scholarship to study within one's country or abroad, many young people who come from strugging families give up on their dreams and settle for the fastest way to earn an income and provide for their families or self-sustain. Lucky are the ones who get the opportunity to be hired permanently to work in the government sector*. I heard those people are content. Legend has it, they are content up to this day.

Let's now place our focus on those successful humans that walk and breathe Asian air every day. For us, there is the possiblity to save given that we - the foreigners, immigrants, expats, aliens, whatever we are recently referred to as - arguably have a higher income compared to what we would earn in our native countries. The only hindrances to this are:

1. We need to proactively change our mindset to "I am able to save" and

2. We need to leave the darn money in the bank account for longer than the days after pay-day.

How can we achieve this:

  1. We must acknowledge the fact that we do earn more than our fellow countrymates. This is the reason why we keep staying in Asia, yes or yes?

  2. We must pay ourselves for all our hard work during the given month. And when I say pay, I do not mean immediately go to the shopping mall and get those sneakers which kept winking at us as we passed by. I also do not mean get another (insert thing) because our closet still has not reached max hold limit. We have to try to leave the money in the bank and let it sit there for a bit.

You will ask, but how can I save if I need to remit, pay my school fees, living expenses, bills, etc. At the end of the day, I almost cannot make it until the next pay day.

I will say, I too, am like you. After all, it's a learning process.

Let me share my personal experience on how I used to spend my net money after bills:

  1. Coffee - If you know me, you know that I talk about coffee all the time. I probably went to a nearby Starbucks or I'm on my way or will soon be there. But when I started to plan ahead, I told myself, which would you prefer: Buying a Starbucks now or buying $8 dollars of tacos when you go back home?

  2. Seasonal clothing - I always wanted to replace boredom by going somewhere and buying new items. It wasn't enough to browse the shopping site or go window shopping. When I came back home with whatever I bought, I would want to immediately have an occasion to use it. Did I get long-term satisfaction with doing that? You guessed it, I didn't. But my closet's contents kept piling up and there wasn't really any cohesion among the items bought.

  3. Food - we can argue and fight about this as we will all say we need food to survive. But do we really need to buy those $340 pancakes at The Diner, those $200+ biandang (mealbox). Do we need to sit at Hooters, TGIF, or some other highty tighty place to eat wings and drink beer? We don't need to but we want to. Think about it: do we need to do it frequently, like every weekend? Can we try to use of all the groceries we have already bought that will soon expire and rot? How about changing the mindset that we must have brunch in a cute restaurant? Can we work on that?

Can you identify how your money goes down the drain after bills?

One day, I was scrolling on Facebook and saw someone sharing a memory from 7 years ago. I became curious and also went in search of my FB memory. Young May was talking about the dreams she had for the future. The present May started to ponder: What did I accomplish all this time?

Traveling to many places? Check!

A well-paying job? Debatable but checked.

A house of my own? Nope.

Savings in the bank, enough for emergency funding (you know, in case China...) Also, nope.

Another memory immediatey surfaced: The last time we moved, I had told a friend, I should at least have NTD100,000 (around US$3,200) in the bank at any given time. My conscience cannot even share with you how much I saved from then to now. Then something terrible happened. The company I work for started laying off people. The first time, I was not affected. Whew! I even forgot about the situation. Then there was a second wave. Bam! Long story short, I became a part-timer. I'm still holding on to dear hope that this is just a phase and the job I accepted in place of becoming an ambassador, will pretty soon rehire me to full time. Call me an optimist, it's just who I am.

At that moment, all sorts of future expenses started to circle above my head. How will I fulfill my wish of giving my mom a decent home to live in, she is already 74 years old! How will I afford to continue sending my daughter to the current kindergarten? Will I have to move her to another school and have her lose her little friends again? Will we have to find cheaper housing? How long can we live like this? Am I willing to find a new job? Will I have to return home, to nothing?

It's tough when you are faced with the sheer terror of a financial strain. It's tougher on the mind. When no one around you can relate, it's a daily reminder of what you could have done to be okay now, in the present.

Sadly, we deal with it when it happens, like our good-ole upbringing has taught us. Fortunately, when I got the news back in October, I started to save (let's laugh together). Now I'm counting on myself to continue saving even when this dry spell gets some rain.

Let's start to identify those expenses that could become savings. What are the things we can do without or can forego for a little more time. What can be our motivation to save more? Can it be that dream house, that vacation, that next degree, that car, our aging family members, our kids, our pets? Whatever your motivation is, picture yourself in the future and think: Will future you be happy with your choices now?

Let's meet in a year and see how much from this article we have learned? Deal?

(but please, read my next articles leading up to the year.)

With love, from a Belizean living abroad.


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