At 27, I found myself with only $16 in my bank account. Here’s my story of how I bounced back, and the financial lessons I learnt along the way.
I’m now 36, and I’ve completely turned my life around financially. But things weren’t rose-tinted just a decade back.
It all started when I was at the peak of my acting career and wanted to do something different. I decided to branch out into singing — it was something I’d always wanted to explore and pursue. After all, I was one of the Top 30 contestants in 2004’s Singapore Idol and had been trained as a singer and dancer in the Music and Drama Company while serving National Service. I knew I had to go give it a try.
In 2011, I got down to writing the lyrics of my first-ever single, Unleashed. The creative process was rather smooth, and everything went on without a hitch… until I had to produce the music video.
There were a few hiccups along the way, but one that still hits hard, one that would go on to affect me financially in the long run. My original contractor, who charged us $7,000 to build the set, stood us up at the last minute due to another project. I ended up having to fork out $11,000 for another contractor to come in and finish the job. It was the first time I paid such a huge sum of money in one go. I still recall my hands were trembling when I wrote the cheque.
The second big blow, which escalated the cost of producing the video, were the dancers. I had to shell out almost $10,000 on them and the choreography lessons.
If you’re in the industry, you’d know that productions in general have unavoidable costs like rentals for shoot locations, VFX, crew members, transportation, equipment and meals, among others. One thing led to another and, soon enough, the whole process ended up costing around $100,000. I hadn’t factored in that high an expense.
I found myself broke and lost.
All I had left was a pathetic $16 in my bank account. I knew I had to come up with a game plan to build back my finances and figure out a survival strategy.
How I survived with little to no savings
With just $16 in my bank account, I couldn’t even hit the ATM’s minimum withdrawal requirement. I had to borrow money from another actor, a good friend, Dawn Yeoh.
To get back up on my feet at the soonest, I decided to start saving rigorously. On most days, I would eat economy rice (or ‘Cai Png’) at coffee shops, spending an average of $3.50 per meal, knowing it keeps you full.
I also got very disciplined in tracking my expenses. I drew up an excel sheet and took note of every cent that left my pocket. From there, I could decide if there was anything that I could do without.
When you’re broke, you realise even the smallest luxuries cost you a pretty penny. Some of the very common money sinkers are subscription services such as Spotify and Netflix. It’s important to go through your credit card statements to see what you’re actually paying for, and if you’re even still using the service. If not, cancel them.
I’d stay at home on days I didn’t have work and avoid going out because it meant spending more money. I took a break from holidays, buying luxury goods, and began living with my parents to save on rent. When you’ve got very little to live on, you realise the privileges in getting to travel, shop, and eat out. After cutting down on all these unnecessary expenses, my account started recovering and beginning to look a lot healthier.
I started saving an average of $300 to $500 at the end of each month. But I knew that wasn’t enough. I knew I had to aim higher, rake in more savings and fast.
Why I went on a hunt for more income and side gigs
Besides spending less and saving more, I began to hustle and look for more avenues to earn more money. I took up side jobs and went for more auditions. Using my flair for designing, I did some freelance retouching jobs for extra cash, which earned me an average of $50 per job. Bear in mind that this was the rate about a decade ago. These side gigs should be paying you a lot better now, depending on the organisation or the agency and the type of project.
For acting, the income varies based on your role and experience. You can earn anywhere from $40 a day as a calefare (the role of an extra in films) to over $10,000 a month for a leading role (yes, actors earn a very decent amount).
While I was fortunate to have had a constant flow of work, my cashflow was inconsistent. Clients would take 60 to 90 days to pay me after the completion of a job, and that’s something a lot of people don’t realise in the creative industry in Singapore. It’s weird because you don’t go to a restaurant, eat the food, and pay them 60 to 90 days later. Unfortunately, though, it is a prevalent practice here.
How I started a company, paid myself a salary and CPF
It took me around a year to gain back some financial stability. And to help keep track and regulate my earnings from these jobs, I set up a private limited company and directed my earnings there. I paid myself a regular salary of $2,500 and CPF.
If you’re a freelancer, setting up your own company is a great way to have more control over your salary. You can provide yourself with a bit of stability and predictability, and allow room for yourself to start saving. The first rule is to always pay yourself first. When your pay comes in, put some of it in a separate bank account and survive on the remainder. About 10% to 20% of your income would be a good start, and then slowly increase the amount each month. If you’ve got spare cash at the end of the month, save them up too. I can’t insist more on how savings could be your lifetime saviour.
Why I went after a passive income after saving up enough
Honestly, saving enough is still not enough. After setting aside enough emergency funds (I recommend at least three to six months of your income), direct the rest of your money towards earning a passive income. Make your money work for you.
Currently, I have a financial advisor that I hand my remaining money to, who helps me split them between a number of RSPs (Regular Savings Plan), some in the form of unit trusts, and some in the form of cryptocurrency as well as robo-investors. I personally enjoy taking control of my own finances, so I figure out my own investments too.
Besides investing, I also receive some money in the form of royalties from my music. For the uninitiated, royalties is a catch-all term for money collected through ownership of intellectual property, which can be in the form of copyrights, trademarks or patents. How much you earn depends on how popular your music is and how many streams you get. The royalties from my music make up for only a very small sum of my passive income, so it’s more like coffee money. But you know what they say, every drop makes an ocean.
To be honest, I always find it tough to answer whenever someone asks me, “How much money do you have to make to be considered financially stable?” Because it really depends. Everyone has different goals and lifestyles, so there is no ‘fixed’ amount to determine if you’ve ‘made it’. But what I can tell you is that there’s no secret to this either. Earning moolah is just pure, hard work.
3 Big financial lessons I learnt through this experience
- Save, save and save whenever you can
- Working with the wrong people is always financially costly, so be very careful of who you go into business with
- Earning money is never a smooth journey. There have been some jobs that never worked out or some clients that never paid up, so find as many streams of income as possible so you are not stranded when you suddenly find yourself out of a job
As told to Kendra Tan
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By Kendra Tan
Avid promo code hunter and haggler. Kendra doesn’t like paying full price for anything. She’s the best person to bring along if you’re travelling on a budget.