Money Conversations, Growing Up

Growing Up is an English-language drama in Singapore which was debuted in 1996. It had a total of six seasons and the show was set between the 1960s to the 1980s. I have fond memories of watching this drama series in my mid-20s and so I rewatched it again on Netflix recently. In episode 3 of season 3 titled “Count on Me”, the spotlight fell on David Tay, the third child in the family, and the brainiest one with an overseas degree. He is a civil servant and earns the most among the 4 children. In this story, David lied to his mother (Madam Tay) that because he had to help a friend in need, he could only give 40% of what he usually gives to his mum. The truth was, he wanted to buy a car for himself. Madam Tay does not like to discuss the topic of money with her children because she feels it can affect relationships and she chose to trust David in this instance. Meanwhile, the refrigerator at home broke down but she did not have enough money to repair it. So, Madam Tay had to ask for more money from her husband, Mr Tay, as well as Gary, the eldest son and the least educated at home who is running his own carpentry shop and not doing too well financially. This went on for 4 months until one day, Madam Tay discovered by accident that David had lied to him. Worried that he might be in some trouble but unwilling to confront him to talk about it, she asked Gary to speak with him. They got into a fight instead and the truth was revealed. Mr Tay was furious and asked David to return what he “owed” to his mum. While Madam Tay was unwilling to force David to do that, Mr Tay believed that it is important to show tough love so that David would learn. Unfortunately, David did not. The next day, with borrowed money from his friends, he slammed it down on the table in front of his father and said, “here’s your money!”. Madam Tay finally spoke with David about the incident and explained to him why he was wrong and the good intention of his father and brother. David subsequently repented and reconciled with his father and his brother.

The one lesson that we can learn from the Tay family is that it is important to have authentic money conversations at home. This is because while money is simply a medium of exchange, an enabler to life goals and options in life, it can represent so many underlying beliefs and convictions which many times can be unhealthy. But when used correctly, it can also bring out the best of humanity and that is why having an honest conversation at home is important. So, what kind of conversations?

On spending below your means
Since my children were much younger, my wife and I have always taught our kids not just to spend within, but to spend below their means. This means not spending even when you can afford it, especially when you do not need it. Even if you need it, as much as possible, find a more cost-effective alternative. 2 years ago, my son suggested changing our decade-old TV to the latest and much larger smart TV. We reminded him that our TV was working perfectly well and there is no need to do so. This has always been the case at home. We used our fridge for almost 2 decades before it broke down and we had to change it. Every time something breaks down, we try to repair it first if it makes sense and each time we do so, we explained to our children the reasons.

On not making money so easily accessible
Several years ago, both my children wanted to learn driving. Although it is a good skill to have, we feel that it is still a “good to have” rather than a “must have”. And they will probably appreciate the lessons more if they pay for it themselves and so we told them they should pay for it on their own which they did, from the money they earned through part-time work.

On the meaning of money
When my children became older, they began to realise the “power”, “status” and “identity” that money can bring. That was when I started having conversations about the meaning of money with them. I shared with them that the unfortunate reality is, the world will judge them based on what they have or do not have. So go out there and get whatever they need so that they can be heard and positively influence the world. But always be humble and never judge others based on what others have or do not have and never let others do the same to them because this thinking is wrong. Material possessions do not define us.

On saving and investing
When my children grew older, they became more interested in the topic of saving and investing. So, I started teaching them how they should budget and first set aside enough for emergencies, and they can use instruments such as Singapore Savings Bond (Fixed Deposits interest and T-bills yield were not so high then) to park their funds. When they have done that, we started discussing about investing using low-cost instruments such as ETFs and market-based funds. We also discussed cryptocurrency investing and I joined them in dabbling with it a little so that we can learn more about digital assets together. By doing so, we also have a common topic to discuss about money.

On filial piety
I often hear parents say that when their children grow up, they will not ask for money from them. They are already happy if their children do not borrow from them. But when my children were younger, I told them that when they grow up and start working, they must give us a fixed allowance every month. It is not because they need to give but they get to show filial piety by giving. Some may argue that there are other ways to be filial. Others may feel that the children must initiate the giving and not us asking for it. But how would the children know if we do not teach them from young? And while we should show gratitude beyond the giving of money, giving monthly allowances is still the most direct way that requires making some sacrifices on a consistent basis. Since my son started working, he has been giving us a monthly allowance.

As this story in Growing Up came to an end. Gary took the opportunity to explain to his brother the significance of giving money to their parents. He said, “we give allowance to our parents not because they need the money, but because it is our way of showing them that we appreciate them”. A few months before my mum passed away this year, she told me that I can stop giving her money. She said she did not spend it anyway. But I continued giving and wished I never needed to stop.

To be honest, some of the money conversations I had were not easy and I had to show “tough love”. But I know my children will be better off if we have these conversations early and when I need to have financial legacy conversations with my children in the near future, it will be easier.

What are some of your money conversations with your family? Do write to me and share them with me.

The writer, Christopher Tan, is Chief Executive Officer of Providend, Singapore’s first fee-only wealth advisory firm and author of the book “Money Wisdom: Simple Truths for Financial Wellness“.

The edited version of this article has been published in The Business Times on 21st November 2022.

For more related resources, check out:
1. On Life Transitions, Legacy and Money
2. In Tribute to the One That Sacrifices
3. A Letter to My Beautiful Children

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