This Is Your Middle-Class Relationship With Money
The first time it happened, you couldn't understand.
"Why can't I have THAT toy, Mommy!!?" you screamed, tears streaming down your face as you threw a fit.
"Because we can't afford it, darling," she finally said.
Trying to shush you while struggling to give apologetic nods to the shop owners and fellow shoppers. She bungled you into the old Toyota Corolla, and you finally stopped crying. You never saw it, but she was crying too.
In the silence of the drive home, you tried to understand the meaning of the word "afford". It's not a word a six-year-old easily understands.
Little did you know, you'd struggle with it for the rest of your life.
You didn't grow up poor. But neither were you rich.
There was always food on the table. Sometimes it was better and sometimes it was worse, but you never went to bed hungry. When there was something to celebrate, there was always KFC.
Your parents never spoke much to you about money. What you picked up: it was something to be saved, but there was never enough of it. You had an allowance: just enough to be comfortable, and just not enough to learn what jealousy means.
All your Asian parents asked was for you to study hard, obey the rules, and get good grades. "Follow this path, and you'll have a good life," they said.
You became a good student — smart enough to get to the first class. You learned to dream big and wanted to go to Cambridge University.
But once more your hopes were dashed. Your family couldn't afford it — even with the partial scholarship you earned. Somewhere at the back of your mind — while wishing "all the best in the UK!" to less-smart classmates from rich families at the airport — you realised there's something strange, perhaps even unfair about this world.
They told you that intelligence would bring you success — but you started to think maybe money was the real power.
Getting an education
In university, you learned you were firmly middle class.
You could get along with the lucky students who had cars and hopped in for a few guys' nights to the city. But sometimes you hung out with less-privileged friends who could only afford white rice with a single fried egg. You learned to appreciate Nasi Bujang.
Your allowance was barely enough. Especially when you wanted to take a pretty girl out for a date. You couldn't even afford McDonald's but decided to bring her to Le Swiss Caffe for your first date anyway. Thankfully, she noticed your expression staring at the menu, and mercifully suggested you share. "It's more romantic that way," you said, trying to convince yourself you were worthy.
You spent your other nights alternately Googling "Jobs with the highest starting salaries" with "How to save money on dates". Eating plain bread for dinner became a common and worthy sacrifice.
There was an old promise you pinned your hopes on. That if you could graduate with honours and nail your job interviews, then you'd be set for life. You would make your parents proud, your girlfriend proud, and would even have money to treat your Nasi Bujang friends.
In university, you learned there's the rich, the poor and everyone in between. But you would rather be rich.
The trials of graduate life
You start work at a prestigious government-linked corporation in downtown Kuala Lumpur. The five-stage interview process was daunting, but with a combination of your good grades and relentless ambition, you got the job.
RM3,200: your starting salary. It's hard to save money, especially when all your batchmates keep inviting you for Happy Hour. But you don't want to feel left out.
You don't wanna feel like a loser. So you try to find balance.
You're determined to not fall into the trap of credit card debt — from your uni days of reading you know better. You limit going out to once a week, telling yourself "It'll be worth it in the long run."
When you don't go, your friends' Instagram feeds remind you you're still a loser. "F*ck social media," you say, as you scroll on to the next Story.
You focus your energy reading personal finance articles telling you to stop drinking overpriced coffee to save RM2,880 a year. RM2,880 a year that becomes RM40,238.33 after 10 years of investing wisely! RM40k that could help pay for your wedding!
You feel like shit after reading these articles, but tell yourself you deserve it because you're a piece of sh*t who likes drinking overpriced coffee.
You avoid taking the highway to save RM5 in tolls daily. It adds 40 minutes to your commute, but you don't mind because you can listen to personal finance podcasts while you sit in the jam.
Your old Proton breaks down and you're hit with an emergency repair cost of RM1,030. You're still broke AF.
Discipline, the key to success
You're determined to change your financial destiny. You meticulously track your spending using Monefy app and update your monthly budget Google spreadsheet on a weekly basis. Times may be difficult, but with discipline, you're gonna win.
Mr Money Mustache is your hero. You do the math and start reducing your expenses as much as possible. If you cut your monthly spending by another 10% and save it — you can retire earlier by seven years!
Deal-sharing and comparison websites are your favourites. Why buy anything normally, when you can wait for your favourite brand to have a promotion, then use a promo code with your e-wallet? You were gonna spend the money anyway, and better still, top-up your e-wallet with a cashback credit card for 5% free cash!
That's not even considering the reward points you get on both your e-wallet and credit card. You're on a roll — you learn all the best credit card and e-wallet combos.
You've redeemed at least RM100 just using promo codes this year.
You can't wait for 12.12 to come, thinking of all the money you're gonna save using your powerful #moneyhacks. You're Grab Gold.
You fantasise about being debt-free. Dave Ramsey is a little extreme, but you like the new FIRE bloggers. Their frugal lifestyles look so good on Instagram. You feel motivated every time you see how people can be happy with just a little.
Your elder brother — who buys expensive coffee all the time — gets a five-figure salary offer to work for some Internet software company that recently raised USD42 million. To celebrate, he makes a downpayment on a new apartment and buys you a meal at Chili's.
Everyone can be rich
With your shitty salary, you realise you're never gonna retire early. You have to grow your income. But how?
The words from last night's 'investment guru' rings in your ears:
The amount of costs you can reduce in your life is limited, but the amount of money you can make is limitless. Don't downgrade your lifestyle. Upgrade your income!
You try driving Grab after work, but your back hurts when you sit for too long.
Undaunted, you join a weekly mastermind group, which promises you the opportunity to "brainstorm business ideas with like-minded professionals" and "hold each other accountable for progress". You're not really sure what that means, but keep going anyway because you've made friends and the food is good.
Your weekends are increasingly packed with self-development seminars and business meetups. After a year of planning (or procrastinating — you're not really sure), you finally launch your side business — leveraging what you're good at (calculating numbers), with what the market needs (financial education), and marketing it effectively at low cost (social media).
Your financial education startup gains some traction on Facebook but makes no money. But that's okay, failure is a part of the business. At least you tried.
You consider all the other "passive income" ways to escape the rat race: property rental, stock market trading, FOREX, cryptocurrencies.
You're a businessman. An entrepreneur. You start thinking about joining an MLM.
You've made it. You're the kind of person who reads CNBC Make It, has nine months expenses in Fixed Deposits and uses a robo-advisor to manage your investments.
You briefly considered a wealth advisor, but realised AI will take over the world anyway — why rely on humans? Besides, most passively-managed funds beat actively-managed ones anyway. You always do the research — you know the statistics. You're ready for IR 4.0.
Ironically, instead of the many side hustles you tried, your greatest jump in income came from getting promoted. Then jumping to a competitor who gave you a generous offer. Thank God you didn't quit your job to MLM full-time. There's wisdom in experience and perseverance — you've actually become pretty good at your day job and enjoy it.
You outsource as many things as possible. Why do housework when you can pay for convenience? You need the energy for the greater things you're gonna achieve in life.
You calculate your hourly rate. Your salary is RM10,500 a month, which means RM59.66 per hour. You pay only RM40 per hour for an Indonesian helper, saving RM19.66 every hour. The math doesn't lie — you're so smart with your money.
You're the kind of successful person who has money but no time. Maybe you should work less, but then would you still perform so well at work?
The circle of life
You start a family and your parents rejoice.
However, fear grips you when you realise how much children cost. Formula, diapers, education. Education. "F*ck, that's expensive!" There's no way you can afford an international school, but national school standards are so bad you can't imagine giving your baby anything less than the best.
All your detailed calculations about early retirement go down the drain.
With a family, you'll have to work a typical career. You'll be lucky if you get to retire by 60. From your revised spreadsheet, your wife will have to go back to work too. Then again, who looks after the kids? If you're always working, how do you raise a family? Maybe you really do need that passive income…
So many questions — it's gonna be a long, difficult road ahead. But for your baby, you'd be willing to do anything. Things are different now; love changes everything.
You realise you'll probably continue to struggle with money for the rest of your life. But when you have something worth struggling for, that's okay.