Wiping away the material life

About six weeks ago, I reached another turning point as a series of successive, seemingly random (but you know they aren’t) events made me think very hard about the way I was living my life.

The man who earned $6 million a month on rental income

It was just an ordinary Sunday when my old buddy Ronald called me out for a tea break. We were supposed to chill out over some Dan Dan Mian at the coffeeshop but we got drawn into a long conversation with an ex-SPH colleague “M” whom I had not met in nearly a decade.

M has been working in China for the past few years and related a story about how rich the people there were. There was a guy who had stakes in several huge furniture malls in a Chinese city and he was apparently earning over S$6 million just on the rental income.

Or was it the bank interest on the rental income? It didn’t matter, because the amount was just staggering.

Most of us reading this don’t even think we can save a million dollars in our lifetime, yet this sort of wealth was being wielded by thousands of billionaires in this world.

I didn’t feel jealous, but just a little smaller. I have a good job, and I can pay the bills more easily than in my previous job. But somehow the world shrinks when you hear about the mega-rich and what they can do with their bank accounts.

I thought: How many people are working their butts off to drive this guy’s monthly income? Why don’t schools teach our children to aspire to be landlords instead of scientists, engineers, lawyers and doctors? Aren’t soul-less landlords  part of the reason why Singapore is getting so expensive to live in?

People who kept asking me why I didn’t go on a holiday.

In December, I took two weeks of annual leave and spent the fortnight at home with the kids. When I returned to work, some people would ask me how I spent my leave and which beautiful country did I visit.

When I said “I stayed at home”, they would look shocked and asked why I didn’t bring my kids overseas to enjoy their holidays.

“But I didn’t plan for a trip. And it’s such a hassle.”

“Oh, but your kids would love going to XXX or YYY country! Why waste your holiday at home?”

I know times are different today, and I didn’t actually go onto an airplane until I was 16 years old. But since then, I’ve traveled quite a fair bit for work and play, and I still prefer to just laze around at home for Christmas after a long year of work.

I thought: Why are people insisting that I live my life like them? Is it a must to travel overseas every year? Am I less of a person if I do not bring my kids for an overseas vacation? Does society dictate how we should spend our holidays to make it a fulfilling one?

Too many watches, too little time.

Like many guys in their 30s, I became very passionate about watches around 2011. I think it’s because there really isn’t much choice of jewellery for men apart from wrist timepieces, and also because these ticking things really engage the mechanics in most men.

And since that year, even though I told myself “This is the last watch I’ll buy”, I couldn’t stop buying as I continued to explore different designs and watch technologies, be they G-shocks or mechanical watches.

Soon I had more watches than I could possibly wear regularly, and some watches sat in the watch case for months without being touched.

In the past year, I had begun to sell some of the watches away but I still had too many.

With a grim self-reflection, I realized the watches had become my weakness, my idols, and I also realized that I didn’t miss the ones that I had sold off.

I thought: The watches weren’t very different from the gadgets I had been very passionate about in the 2000s (during my tech editor days) – they were just things, but they were a massive distraction that held no real value in my life. This is the problem with materialism – we keep stockpiling and hoarding stuff, but why? It became very clear that these consumer goods provide some measure of pleasure that never last very long. 

Meeting people who had serious cash flow issues but wanted The Good Life

So I started to sell my unwanted stuff with vigor.

I tried Gumtree.sg at first and it was pretty good for the first few sales. Then upon Edwin’s recommendation, I tried the app Carousell and was stunned by the sheer number of people using and transacting on it.

Some people call Carousell “CarouHell” because of the number of rude, unethical or low-balling buyers on it. I met my fair share of them and blocked them immediately so I could preserve my happiness and politeness.

But what disturbed me very much, were the people who had no cash but still wanted to buy things, even if they were used goods.

One guy asked “Can you wait three months? I have no cash now.”

Another asked “Can you provide instalments?”

What a far cry from the people who were ultra-rich like the China landlord. These buyers wanted things they really couldn’t afford, nor did they really know what saving money meant.

My late mother was a single-parent and drummed into me the importance of saving as much as I could. I didn’t have to suffer the experience of living hand-to-mouth as a child because of her ability to save money, and I don’t wish my children to live a life without sufficient cash flow.

If I can’t afford something, I don’t buy it. In fact, I don’t even try it – which is why I have never test-driven anything more expensive than a Toyota Altis. I don’t really want to know what a luxury car feels like, nor do I want to pay for one. People can rave to me all they want about how a car performs or how comfortable it is, I’m really very happy with my Ducati Monster (which is affordable, but yet truly out of the reach of most people in SG because they don’t have a motorcycle licence).

I thought: What is it about society that drives people to live like that, wanting what they cannot afford? It’s the consumerism, the materialism isn’t it? This poison reaches so deep into our lives. It’s not just these Carousell users, but people who desire overpriced condos when a HDB flat will do, or people who spend hundreds of thousands paying for a car that won’t last them more than 10 years in Singapore. 

Overhearing a breakfast conversation at Whampoa Hawker Center between two retirees

In Dec, I brought my family to eat “Singapore’s Best Lu Mian (Lor Mee)” at the Whampoa market.

We happened to sit next to these two male retirees “A” and “B” who were talking about the cost of living over their kopi.

A: I like eating here, at least I can still get meals for about $3. But prices keep going up. I think on average, I have to spend about $4 or $5 each meal, especially if I buy a drink.

B: Yeah, it’s getting expensive.

A: I calculated that it’s going to cost me a bomb if I live for another 20 to 30 years. Let’s say I have to support myself and my wife. That’s $10 per meal, or about $30 a day if we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner outside. In one year, (he whips out his phone to calculate)….that’s $10,950! If we live another 20 years, that’s $219,000! You tell me, how to save so much money nowadays?

I listened very carefully to the conversation, and my kids did the same too. And when we went back to our car, I repeated the same conversation to them to explain why even being a retiree was so difficult in Singapore, and that it’ll be even more expensive for their generation, so they had better study harder.

Watching excessive consumption behavior on Facebook

I like Facebook very much. I’ve been an active user since 2008 and I’ve seen it make newspapers, television stations, blogs (like this one), magazines and advertisements largely irrelevant in my content consumption.

But the flipside is that it’s become a platform for people to show off their excessive consumption behavior (including myself, gah).

What new dish did we discover today? What new make-up set did I buy today? Hey that’s an amazing new Lego set! What’s that nice frothy frapp that you’re having, I’ll have one too! Which country am I in now?

You know the drill. Let’s snap a photo of our latest pleasure and share it!

I don’t think there’s anything wrong in telling people how happy we are with our new and wonderful experiences. I do the same when posting photos to Instagram and Facebook.

But over the past year, I started to “Unfollow” people who kept posting nothing but their latest food conquests or new shopping baskets. Or for people that I do like, I just clicked “I do not want to see this.”

I had already filtered out people who liked to complain about everything, and now I was removing people who liked to buy everything and tell me how nice it was. As far as I could tell, and because of the stories I had related above about wealth, desire and poverty, the materialism of the world was finally getting to me.

What I did

What the Bible had been telling me for years – that we should be storing up our treasures in heaven, and not on earth – was finally ringing really loudly in my ears.

I don’t know what’s the average age of a Christian that this phenomenon happens, but it was happening to me and I could not tolerate the mistakes I had made with materialism and the way that society seems to actually enjoy telling people to desire for more than they could afford or have time to enjoy.

I could not bear my own hypocrisy of saying “See that ultra-rich pastor live a life of excess”, when I was really not much different (ok, except that I don’t cheat my own flock!) and re-reading my own post on Christianity and hypocrisy was an apt reminder of my desire to clean up my act for many years.

So in my usual, rather extreme manner, I decided to take stock of my life in a rather literal way:

I actually made an inventory list of all my personal belongings and told myself I would tabulate the total quantity and value each month to see how much I have reduced it month-on-month.

I also told myself I could not buy anything new unless something was really broken or torn and needed to be replaced (OK, I’ll make an exception for one new Chinese New Year shirt)

I read this quote somewhere from 19th century author and architect William Morris:

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

And another quote from an old friend:

“If you haven’t used it for the past six months, you don’t need it.”

So I made a prayer to God to help me pick out the things I didn’t need or find useful, and help me to sell them by the end of January 2015.

It’s the 2nd of Feb today, and by God’s grace, I’ve managed to sell a multitude of things from my secondary motorcycle, most of my watches, to my hifi system, to my old violin books to even some jeans. I thought some of these stuff would be difficult to sell, but a prayer does wonders and I’ve moved them pretty quickly on Carousell (while busy blocking the lowballers).

I also discovered this wonderful website SG Gives which allows anyone to donate to any local approved charity of their choice. This straightaway removes any doubt that the money I donate would actually go to the charity that I choose to support.

Some people call this the wonder of decluttering, but I believe decluttering only works when you keep an inventory list to prevent yourself from buying more new things. I also asked my friends to pray that I would stick to my promise to clean up my act.

If you think I’m going to start looking like Ji Gong with tattered clothes, that’s not the idea. The idea is how can I live with exactly what I need, and nothing more or less? I did that with my diet and ended up learning so much about our eating behavior over the past two years, and it seemed only natural I would apply the same philosophy to my lifestyle needs and wants.

I hope I don’t sound too judgemental or even “Christian” to you, but really, I think many of us have lost ourselves in our possessions, our constant desire for something better, for the shiny and fancy stuff.

We work hard every day to earn money, but we don’t think very hard about how we spend it and what that does to our mind and bodies. We chase after the best food there is, then we wonder why we get fat and develop heart disease. We line up for the latest product launches, only to sell off that fancy phone a year later.

If that’s not meaningless, I don’t know what is.

I told someone recently, “Isn’t it amazing that we went from living in a country with no resources, to becoming the most expensive city in the world?”

Now, have we thought about what drives the people who live in the most expensive city in the world? Could it be that we have helped to make the country this way with the way we live our lives?

41 Replies to “Wiping away the material life”

        1. Hi Joanne, feel free to follow me anytime on FB (www.facebook.com/iantan) but I’m sorry if I don’t add any reader as a friend. I keep my friends list to people I work with or grew up with.

          1. Thanks alright. Thank you.
            And keep up the good work. Maybe you can now slowly transition into helping the unfortunates (not necessarily human). ????

  1. Thank you for this piece, a good reflection. My weakness was clothes, and realised that having too many around was wasting space and time searching for them. I packed several (many worn just once) to another country.

    Every Christmas, there is some form of ‘madness’, madness in buying things and giving things, getting stressed out over nothing, when actually a good meal at home with the family celebrating CHRISTmas can be the most wonderful thing.

  2. Wonderful post. Having gone through similar thoughts as you these recent years and was surprised that I am not an odd ball. Keep up the good work.

  3. Oh great… I’ve been waiting for the wonderful sale which would give me 12% cash rebate. Now that I’m just 2 days away from it and you’re tell me this…
    🙂 Just kidding. I genuinely appreciate your artcle, it’s a great reminder. Thank you!

  4. Thanks, Ian. This is the kind of reminders we all need. Yet, I am also reminded that “knowing what to do must be translated into doing what you know.”

  5. Hi Ian, I commend you on expressing such a powerful (and timely) message in a beautiful manner. What most of us need is less, and not more!

  6. You’ve just said everything that has been going through my mind for the past few months and in fact a few days ago, I just told my husband exactly what you have said “…consumer goods provide some measure of pleasure that never lasted very long.” 😀

    I am never into material stuff (but still end up with a lot of things) and after reading your article just reaffirm my belief.

    Now I’m going to make double effort to get rid of my stuff on Carousell (yes I met those pesky buyers too!) or give them away.

  7. Your article had went so viral on FB, Ian! We live in a world/country with too much materialism… And many trying to keep up with the Joneses. I have had my pitfalls but am glad to have a very down-to-earth hubby who keep me grounded. I certainly hope this resonates with as many folks as this can reach!

    1. Hey Jovalene,

      Thanks for reading! I’m surprised at how many people are reading this, I think there’s a growing frustration with how we really want to lead our lives versus how other people make us feel about the same thing.

  8. A great n thoughtful piece. Just shared this with Bible study group (a couple of guys hv same fascination for watches like you had): “Do you realise that one day, all faces on our watches will be blank?” Watches are useless in eternity!! I hv 2. One for sports n the other for work. Each is replaced when they cease to work.

  9. Hello, this was a great article to read. ^^

    The point about travelling overseas for a holiday really got to me. It gets quite suffocating when everyone around you wants you to go to XXXXX place or XXXXXX place.

    What’s wrong about just staying at home or just going to the places you love? Dx

  10. I spent time reading this and I have to say your article is great. It makes me reflect on how I live my life, and how I want to love my life. 🙂

  11. Excellent read mate! Although you call it a rant, I don’t see it that way; you’re also giving solutions that worked for you, and something that could work for anyone. Will pay forward 🙂

  12. Thanks for the great article.

    Brought my son to McDonald’s this morning n ordered 2 sets. Almost bought the soft toys that I’m entitled to. Glad I resisted as it will just end up collecting dust.

    Your article just confirmed I made right decision. It’s a habit ( buying things we don’t need ) that needs to be changed.

  13. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

    I’m teaching my heart not to use external yard sticks on my value.

    It’s been tough but a worthy goal.

  14. Hi Ian, thanks for your reminder again. I’m also striving hard to declutter and reduce things that I do not need. Funny how people’s always matching our wealth with what they see we have or do not have. We did not want a car up to a point where we refused to get driving licenses so as not be tempted to get a car! It worked for us but some people finds us foolish. I guess we know ourselves best. Don’t let others dictate how we live our lives. Press on brother!

  15. Thanks Ian! I needed to read something like this. A true observation: even if someone is not ‘the materialistic kind’, somehow it sneaks up on you when you’re not looking. And suddenly you have all these extra things ‘just in case’. I liked the quotations and the testimony of your doing and not just saying. Thanks for this and God bless!

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  17. Hey Ian, thanks for writing this article and the follow-up. I also checked out your “Lifehacks to Spend in Singapore”. I agree with what you had written as I am in the process of de-cluttering my life too. Keep up the good work.

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