Lifehacks to spend less in Singapore

There is this adage that it’s not how much you earn, but how much you can save that matters. As I get older, I get more focused on saving where possible because the cost of living only goes up over time. My current philosophy on “wiping the material life” has also helped sharpen that focus a little bit more.

Unlike most articles on the web, I’m not here to write about which bank savings rate you should invest in, or how to calculate your retirement earnings. You may not live long enough to retire anyway, who knows right?

I’m more concerned about staying alive each day and ensuring I am healthy so I can use my hands and brains to work. I’m not going to dwell on property or car choices either, since those are highly debatable on needs versus wants.

So on a daily basis, there are simple small practices (or lifehacks, as is the current lingo) that many people already practice, and that you might find useful for your lifestyle. Our expenditures are often a case of death by many small cuts, so where can we avoid getting hurt?

#1 Set an ambitious saving rate each month.

Assuming you don’t have too many involuntary commitments (eg. parent allowance, student loan), you’d be surprised how much you can save. If your original target was 10%, then why not try 15% next month? And so on.

#2 Put very little money in your wallet and use a debit card.

For the first five years of my 15-year working life, I used a debit card all the time. And for many years, I also put no more than $30 in my wallet each time, to make sure I had to keep walking to the ATM and remind myself not to withdraw too much. I put a bit more now into the wallet as the kids are older and the price of a regular meal has gone past $4 at many places.

#3 Avoid taking cabs unless absolutely necessary.

I only take cabs if I can’t find a way to take a bus or train to that location, or if I’m really out of time, or if going on a motorcycle is not appropriate for formal business meetings. I’m constantly amazed how people can take cabs every day just to get to and from work, even though they have public transport options. I guess I am well-trained from my NTU days where I spent three hours each day on the train and bus between Bishan and Boon Lay.

#4 Do your own housework.

I don’t want to hire a maid because I don’t like having strangers under my roof. There are those who need domestic helpers because they just can’t cope with their kids or elderly relatives, or physical disabilities. But I strongly believe in most homes, people should and can cope with their own housework. Housework is not difficult, but it does take regular discipline to keep a house in good shape (there’s a reason why they are called “chores”). I spend my weekends getting my kids to do housework with me to instil the same discipline in them.

#5 Marriages are not expensive.

It costs only $26 for Singaporeans to get their marriage registered at ROM. Marriages become grossly expensive because people want to throw big dinner banquets to please their parents. But remember, it’s not your parents getting married. Gather your best friends and favorite relatives and you probably don’t need more than a few dinner/lunch tables per side of the family. It’s really more meaningful and romantic, IMO.

#6 Pay for things that last.

Saving more sometimes means investing in high quality goods or services. Like the services of a great wedding photographer – your grandchildren will appreciate the photo album, and nobody remembers the wedding dinner dishes or flowers, unless they were really bad/ugly.

Or a pair of good stereo speakers – my $800 Mission speakers I bought with my first pay cheque are still working great after 15 years.

Or Deuter backpacks. I tried different brands since my schooling days, and Deuters are quite indestructible for whatever I’ve used them for.

Or well-made handyman tools that get things done the first time.

Not all brands continue upholding their standards of quality though. Keep reading the latest reviews and forums to make sure your favorite brand hasn’t gone the route of severe cost-cutting like many global companies.

#7 Buy cheap goods if you know they have a limited use period or don’t need to be industrial-strength.

For example, many items from IKEA. Some folks like to scoff at IKEA furniture and like many, I’ve had some horror stories with their poor quality materials. But their quality seems to have improved over time and I recently bought a $55 study table that isn’t very different in stability and strength from their $169 version with fancier legs.

For some storage options at home, I’ve chosen Toyogo plastic cabinets because I know they are not meant to last more than 10 years and they allow me to shift furniture around as the kids grow up and having changing needs. Tip: choose the cabinets with sealed sides to keep the dust out.

Beware of cheap electronics though – a cheap laptop which is heavy, slow and clunky may not be worth its price at all if you get backaches from carrying it around.

#8 Learn how things are made, or how they work.

If you know enough about watches, you’d realize a $200 Seiko with its generic automatic movement may actually be more reliable than a $2,000 fancy-named European watch. And behold, they are both mass-produced in a factory. I’m still puzzled why people pay over $10K for a Rolex that is really a straightforward diver model and is actually very commonplace. You can wax lyrical about the Rolex looks and “brand allure”, but the German Steinhart divers offer similar designs, build quality and performance for around $500 SGD.

Most of the $2 household items in Daiso work just as well as their equivalents sold for many times more, so I spend a lot of time perusing the Daiso shelves like an ah pek to learn the true range of their staggering catalogue. Or how much I’ve overpaid for many things in the past!

I use a laptop (currently a Surface Pro 3) for work, but at home, I’ve been using the same DIY desktop PC for over three years. I love assembling my own home computers because it’s fun, and I also get to know the market value of each component via retail/online shopping. Many people want convenience so they have moved away from DIY PCs for pre-assembled desktops, but it’s a pity that they don’t really know how easy (and often cheaper) it is to slap together your own high-powered family computer with competitively priced components.

Think of things as having a price-performance ratio, so you don’t just buy it because it’s cheap, but more because it performs great for the price. There are no free lunches, but there are worthwhile lunches.

Sidenote: I was very amused by the recent hooha over the Breadtalk incident where their “freshly packaged” soya bean drink was found to be repackaged Yeo’s soya milk. Well, you wouldn’t drink that in the first place if you know where to find truly fresh $1 soya bean drink from various hawker centers, and know what they taste like.

#9 Walk as much as you can.

For any distance less than 3km, I try to walk instead of driving or taking any form of transport. Walking is a good alternative exercise for me on days where I have no time to go for my usual 6km jogs or 1km swims.

And no, you don’t really need a fitness band. If you own a modern smartphone with an accelerometer, it can download free apps to count your steps accurately. Fitness wearables, IMO, are only useful if they have GPS and can track real distance rather than just steps.

#10 You don’t really need to go to the gym and pay expensive membership fees.

Unless you want to build specific muscle groups, need the help of a trainer, or you really love that boring treadmill, you can get enough exercise through free exercises in the natural outdoors (running, skipping) or swims in cheap public pools (though beware, germs abound in their bathrooms. Always wear footwear even when bathing there).

In fact, there’s this new… yet ancient trend of using your body weight as your fitness training tool. I do push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and that’s all I need to keep my body regularly-toned.

#11 Try to avoid being overweight.

Not just for looks, but for many money-saving benefits. The more overweight you are, the more health risks you have, and the more likely you’ll get injured if you try to exercise suddenly. People who don’t exercise and eat healthily also tend to fall sick often, which means more expensive visits to the doctor and medicine. Medical costs is something most people don’t plan for and don’t realize how much they hit the wallet.

BTW I wrote a book on weight loss if you’re keen.

#12 Ride a motorcycle.

Yes, it’s high risk, but it’s also cheap and efficient to get around. I don’t like the current $6000+ COE for motorcycles, but I don’t think car COEs in Singapore are going to drop below $50K anytime soon. Also, it’s a pretty good deal to buy a used 1,000cc superbike for under $20K which will outrun any million-dollar supercar when the lights turn green.

People who pooh-pooh bikes also may not realize how much it saves me on a daily basis in fuel, parking and toll fees. Interestingly, the most-read article on my site is “Should I Ride A Motorcycle In Singapore?”

#13 Sell something every week (and don’t replace it).

Try to declutter by selling something you haven’t used for the past six months. I’m constantly going through my house to see what else I can sell each weekend. This practice came up from my desire to stop my materialistic lifestyle. I recently cleared out my storeroom yet another time and I’m very pleased about how airy it feels now.

Tip on selling used goods : Just sell it at a price you would pay for if you were the buyer, block the lowballers to reduce the angst and it’s going to be a very pleasant experience each time. I usually move my Carousell-listed items within the same week of posting. If you’ve got a used phone, try my new company’s site Andios.

#14 Go digital where possible.

The more physical goods you own, the more you need to buy/create storage to keep them in. I’ve replaced almost every printed book I have with the Kindle or PDF edition, and they reside in the cloud so it doesn’t matter which e-reader or tablet I use to read them. Amazon has daily offers on Kindle e-books which bring popular titles to as low as $1.99 USD – I bought a whole bunch of Ray Bradbury classics at that price each!

Zinio magazines on devices offer magazine subscriptions at dirt cheap prices (because they have global volume scale), so don’t buy those obsolete print mags if you can. Printed magazines or newspapers always get thrown away, so why buy something you don’t keep?

#15 Use the air-conditioner sparingly.

I probably switch on my bedroom air-con not more than 20 times a year because I’m so used to cooling by electric fan. I find air-con environments to be detrimental to one’s health, as they can lower your body’s resistance.

Most people actually set their air-con temperatures too low (eg. 18 deg C when it should be around 24-26 deg C) and cause greater susceptibility to illnesses. However, this practice may be less tenable as global warming heats up or during bad haze periods.

#16 Carry a water bottle everywhere (get a good water bottle holder/sling).

One of the greatest tragedies of consumerism is its success in getting people to pay over $6 SGD for a cup of plain coffee from a lifestyle coffee chain.

You’re may be simply drinking a cup of hot water with generic coffee beans mixed in, but you’re also footing the coffee chain’s global marketing budget, high rentals from greedy landlords and remember, it’s a soulless machine that grinds the beans anyway.

I limit myself to a $1 or $1.50 cup of black coffee daily, and imagine, that already costs nearly $550 a year and I can cut down further with home-made coffee. Sure you can always treat yourself to pricey beverages, but not every day.

Plain water, obviously, is the best and cheapest option around.

In the same vein, smoking or drinking alcohol regularly are both huge hits on the wallet.

#17 Pack at least one meal to work or school.

I do this for breakfast, since I avoid all the high-calorie but low-nutrition breakfast fare out there (I’m looking at you, overpriced pastry from confectionery shops). My wife often cooks dinner at home, so the only meal I spend more money on is my lunch.

#18 Not everything should be bought online

One can save a lot of money buying SSD drives and tools from Amazon instead of local retail shops, but I try not to buy clothing or shoes because you don’t know how well they would fit. I once bought several Levi’s jeans for less than $50 each from the official online store in the US, but some of them were too tight even though I ordered the right waist and inseam sizes. This was due to the non-stretchable material they used, but didn’t highlight on their website. These days I just buy Uniqlo jeans locally – they are cheaper, fit well and have free length alterations.

#19 Study your monthly bills

Often, we just don’t know where the money is disappearing to. The solution is to download your bank account details or credit card bills, export them to Excel and study what you’re actually spending on so you can cut the fat. Several years ago, I was paying a lot for cable TV channels that the family didn’t have enough time to watch, so I reduced the bill by over 60% by removing unnecessary channels. These days me and the kids just watch mostly Netflix and free-to-air programs.

#20 Use public facilities regularly, because you already paid for them

Go to public libraries, public swimming pools, parks, sports stadiums and use them regularly. Not because they are “free”. In fact, you already paid for the upkeep of these facilities through the various taxes you fork out each month (eg. income tax and GST). Don’t turn your nose up at these facilities because they’re often very well-kept and sometimes under-utilized.

Amusingly, that’s why I also make sure I always try to watch the National Day fireworks up close – those spectacular explosions are our dollars evaporating into the air!

Not every tip here will work for everyone, so your mileage will always vary. Do share more ideas in the comments below!