Saturday, 18 October 2014

My Financial Journey 3 - Be Persistent, Patiently

Sticking to one's aim to build up wealth requires persistence, as I have mentioned in my last post

In analyzing my own situation, I figured I have discipline, but I am also well aware that if I insist on doing things my way all the time, I may end up with no friends and everyone would probably find me a bore.  

The only way to stick to one's financial plans, without hurting relations, is to do it with patience.  If you "arm-wrestle" your friends and family to follow you in your spending habits, not only will it not last, it will also strain relationships. The level of discipline required of a parent is even higher. You have to consistently lead by example. No use teaching your kids to be frugal when you yourself spend with little consideration.  But you also have to teach them patiently, else you are imparting the wrong value that money is everything.

The pressure to spend money exists everyday.  I find that the best way to persist in our own spending plans is simply to say matter-of-factly that you don't have a budget for "so-and-so".  Or state upfront, your budget is "so-and-so" for the meal you are having together, for example.  No justification needed. Of course, if you feel the people you are with are receptive enough, you can always share your bigger financial goals.  

Surprisingly, I found out that this seemed to have rubbed off on some of my colleagues.  One colleague in particular, I remembered, was a self-confessed shopaholic. When she saw how I was keeping a budget, she also started keeping track of her own expenses.  

One fine day, she confided in me that she was still paying off credit card debts accumulated since university days, when she went on a whirlwind tour of Europe on borrowed money before even starting work.  She had discussed with her husband and decided to quickly pay off those debts by lowering expenses.   A "favour" she asked of me was to help her packet some food from a hawker centre near my place everyday. She would then eat that for her lunch, saving on food expenses and also stopping herself from shopping during lunchtime.  Frankly, I was speechless for a while, but gave her my full support.

A few months later, this friend announced to me that she and her husband had managed to pay off all their credit card debts and for the first time, they were able to "own" their full salary, instead of transferring a portion of it to pay off their debts.  That image of her looking so carefree and relaxed stayed with me, and I realized that even though budgeting was meant to help only myself, I was also indirectly helping others.  That was one of the things that kept me going. 

With my children, the self-imposed need to give them a "happy" childhood nagged me almost all the time.  I confess, I sometimes secretly wished that they had cuter outfits, colourful bedrooms Ikea-style and the latest toys.  But the "rational" me know that they outgrew these things really fast.  So, I persevered and told myself to be sensible.

Just some examples: kiddy rides and toys.  I never insert any coins in those coin-guzzling kiddy-ride machines that every young toddler loves. My kids would just sit on them and pretend they are moving haha.  As for toys, I made it a point to never pay for toys in my kids' presence.  My rule was to "window-shop" at stores but they are not to pester me to buy. If not, out we go.  

If my memory serves me right, unlike many other children their age, my boys had never once thrown a tantrum over wanting to buy something.   But, without them knowing, I would make a mental note of what they truly liked.  I would buy it when there is a sale (when they were not with me) and gave them as presents for their birthdays. Once a year, I would maybe add two or three toys and the rule was they had to share with each other.  Most of their other playthings were gifts, hand-me-downs, freebies or even self-made toys.

More than a decade later, I finally found validation for my actions when my boys are in their teenage years.   In our daily conversations, when they recall their favourite childhood memories, what they remembered most vividly was me reading bedtime stories to them and how I would make up stories for them based on characters they chose.

Their favourite toys (defined as the only toy they would save in the event of a fire breaking out) turned out to be two very old, freebie stuffed toys they got when they were toddlers.   I was very surprised by this because during our stint in China, our rich expat friends had given them really nice transformer, lego toys and nerf guns etc.  When I asked them why, they said the two toys have shared many happy memories with them, and were too precious to lose.

So, can you be a cheapo parent and still raise well-adjusted children? Can you be "budget-conscious" and still have friends?  I suppose, the answer lies in what else you do besides being frugal.  You can give freely of your time, your thoughts and your love.  This sounds cliche but it's been proven to be true in my case.  

So, on your way to financial freedom, be persistent, but do it in a patient way with the people around you.  It takes time - a long long time, but slowly, people around you will understand and even embrace what you do.  

In my next few posts, however, I will speak on being "ruthless".  Not to others of course, but to yourself.  How did we speed up the accumulation of our "Goose Account" and how we used the money to invest when the time was right.

Till then, enjoy your friends and family as you embark on this financial path. 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

My Financial Journey 2 - Saving for a "Goose" Account

In my last post, I promised to talk more about the second book which made a great impact on me.  Here's a picture of it, because I'm pretty sure not many may have heard of the author, Bodo Schafer.  The full title of the book is, "The Road to Financial Freedom - Your First Million in Seven Years"

At 26 years old, German Bodo Schafer became bankrupt, owed creditors 75 000 marks. After two and a half years, for the first time in his life earned 100,000 marks a month, and then his first million.  He was able to live off the interest of his capital at age 30.   As I am typing this, I googled and realized he is still a financial coach today and his book has apparently sold over 10 million copies (not the 1.5 million that you see on my book cover).  OK, he is still around and not some fly-by-night author. Phew. 

The first key takeaway I applied from his book was to set up a separate savings account, named the "Goose" Account.  Just as in the Aesop's fable, the moral of the story is to never kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Similarly, one is not allowed to touch the money in this account except for the sole purpose of investment.   This account was, as described in his words, one that "you should pay yourself first, before you pay anyone else"! The target he recommended was 10% of income but I decided to top that to 30% and challenged ourselves to do so.

(Having said that, please note too that he recommends having an emergency fund, which we already have by then.)

What is this Goose Account for?  It's money to invest according to the rules he has set out in his book, which convinced me that stocks was the mode of investment that has proven itself over long periods of time.  What was needed was an emotion-less buying at crises times (which come about in cycles) and holding on for at least 2-5 years.  To do that, I knew we had to build up our ammunition war-chest to take advantage of sell-downs in the stock market.  And to have holding power meant we needed to have our emergency fund as well as the Goose account, or money that we are willing to let go for a few years.

Very simply, Bodo said, the only way to increase savings was either to earn more or spend less (or both ideally).  And the way to go about it is with urgency.  

For the first method "earn more", I knew I wouldn't be getting bonuses or increments till year end. It was also not entirely up to me, given that we had just begun to climb the career ladder.  The second method "spend less" seemed more attainable, since it meant taking small but immediate actions everyday.  I knew too that I needed little wins each day to keep me going.

I chose to work immediately on the latter, knowing full well that the word "SAVE" was deemed by some to be a four-letter word and "cheapo" was the label associated with people who did that.  But I had a bigger goal, so these are but small problems. 

So, I went about setting up a spreadsheet using my rudimentary Excel skills,  I scrubbed through all our expenses, religiously recording every dollar we spent.  To remember my expenses, I saved every receipt in my wallet.  Even my husband would pass me his. Come to think of it, that's what he does even to this day.

For expenses that didn't come with receipts, I would scribble on a piece of paper kept in my wallet. I deliberately placed lesser cash in my wallet so as to put myself into what I later called a "self-imposed deprivation" mode.  It was akin to having a lower credit limit on your credit card, I suppose, although I never really had problems with credit card debts.  

I was not tempted to use credit cards simply because the places I frequented were coffeeshops, food courts and neighbourhood stores which don't accept credit cards anyway.  I taught or nagged everyone at home to switch off the lights, save water etc etc.  I was probably a pain to them. 

After a few months , I put them into broad categories and analysed them.  I was very serious about it. I was curious to see where our money was going to.  I questioned my expenses and asked if there was any way to cut down on some of my spending. I brainstormed and made a list of quick-wins:
-  ask for and get hand-me-downs for childrens' toys and clothes (they outgrow them quickly anyway), 
-  delay purchases until there was a sale 
-  not buy at all,
-  borrow things if it's just for a one-time use, 
-  less restaurant meals with colleagues,
-  switch to a cheaper telco plan,
-  cook simple meals at home more,
-  family outings to "free" or "cheap" places like parks, libraries, public pools,
-  make simple alterations to rarely-worn clothes to wear them often
-  self-drive hols to Malaysia instead of flight holidays
-  avoid taxi rides...
The list grew and grew as new ideas came.   It was a list to maintain a lifestyle I deemed fulfilling yet in  thrifty ways.  

It was like a game to me, but was it easy?  Not entirely.

The most difficult part was when it involved other people - two groups of people especially: my colleagues and my children, but for very different reasons.  My colleagues who loved to "reward" themselves because after all, we're already working so hard already, would often ask me along to shop or eat with them.  It was difficult to turn them down.  I would call this "external" pressure.

As for my children, they were too young to know better.  In fact, it was me the mother who was feeling guilty now and then when I "deprived" them of things that I knew other parents would give their children freely.  I call this: "internal pressure" and this is frankly, the harder to tackle for me. I often question if I was depriving them of a happy childhood because of my "selfish" goals. 

There were times I wanted to relent but I believed I didn't.  And the great thing was, because I didn't, the pressure became less and less, in ways I never imagined.  I shall touch on these in my next post but let me end with this little extract from Bodo's book on Warren Buffett, my long-time hero:

"Warren Buffett started as a newspaper boy - and saved.  He held on to every dollar he could hold on to.  He bought practically nothing, because he hardly ever saw the money that he should spend.  He always saw the balance that he would be worth in the future." 

Have fun building your Goose Account!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

My Financial Journey 1 - Begin with Faith

This is a series of posts in response to a new and younger friend who is on the verge of signing up for a savings plan. I had told him earlier that I don't believe in savings plans because it is something which runs against my belief that I am my best money manager.  He of course then asked me how to go about investing.   

A straightforward question, isn't it? 

Truth be told, I was surprised I could not come up with a simple answer.  I mulled over it for a long time, wondering how I should sequence my reply.  Should I go straight to the technical aspects?  That wouldn't seem right because that alone would not be enough for one to stay on this path. I could teach him to budget, to look for good stocks etc. But why would he do it?  Shouldn't he leave it to the pros?

So, I decided.  I would have to put myself back in time, to the time when I was just like him, young and working full-time, with a little bit of savings stashed away but not knowing what to do about it.  It has been many years since the day I decided to take my financial future in my own hands.  More than 15 years, I believe.  I hope my memory serves me well, but if it doesn't and my facts seemed a bit muddled, please forgive me.  

It all started in dribs and drabs, no "eureka" or definitive moment per se.  But it definitely came about because of a new "belief" or I would even say, "faith" that was slowly taking shape over my long periods of reading.  I was asking myself questions like:"What if I didn't want to work till retirement?", "Was there a way to be financially free earlier, say around age 40?" or "Do you really have to be born rich to achieve financial freedom?".  All these questions nagged me and I began seeking answers through the method I knew best - reading.  I wanted to get out of the rat race.

The first books that left a huge impression on me were "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" and "The CashFlow Quadrant" by Robert Kiyosaki.  They seemed like crazily simple books and had their fair share of critics.  I even remembered feeling a little "embarrassed" reading them on the train.  But something in them made a lot of sense to me.  He gave me insights into another way of thinking about my financial situation.  We have all been told to study hard, get a job, and that everything would be fine if we did so.  Like him, something in me told me this is not the way.

"Rich Dad, Poor Dad" taught me to make money work for me, instead of me working for money.  The author opened my eyes to the fact that by being an employee, I was working partly for the government (in the form of taxes), for the banks (in the form of loan interest), for others (in the form of bills) and subjecting my financial future to the vagaries of retrenchment or job disillusionment. I was relieved to learn that it's ok to be a "coward" and to be afraid to lose money, because that was what I was. The trick was, he said, to "start young" -  a piece of advice often heard but seldom heeded.

I was deeply enamoured but equally bewildered by the concept of passive income - money that you earn even without you actually working!   It seemed like an incredulous concept at that point.  I also became convinced that wealth, not the type you flaunt with branded gadgets or flashy cars, is defined by "a person's ability to survive X number of days forward without work". 

I immediately went on to devour his second book, "The CashFlow Quadrant".

For those who haven't read this book, Robert Kiyosaki's CashFlow quadrant namely consists of: E (Employee), S (Self-employed), B (Business Owner) and I (Investor). Very simply put, most of us are E's but E's do not end up rich.  It's the B's and I's who do.  

I calculated how much I would earn as a civil servant, given the usual "government" raises I would get every year, assuming I stayed working for many years.  I also added what my husband potentially could earn.  I came to a rather disappointing figure after deducting projected expenses.  Being an employee (E) was not going to cut it for me in the long run. I do not relish working till the age of 62.  What was left to do was either to be a B (Business Owner) or I (Investor).  It was by simple elimination that I decided I needed somehow to be an Investor.  Property seemed too expensive for us and so what seemed plausible as investment vehicles were stocks.  

But there was a huge problem.  We didn't have the money and we didn't know how.  We both came from very modest backgrounds.  My husband is the son of a taxi driver and housewife and me, well, much worse.  Both my parents could not support themselves financially and my eldest sister had to start work earlier to help her younger siblings get through school. 

We also didn't have a very good track record.  Following the herd, my husband and I had bought into "penny stocks" based on stock tips or just gut feel.  And were also clobbered by CLOB (pun intended) when it was declared "illegal".  We were burnt in the stock market.  Thankfully though, there wasn't much to burn.  

Luckily, another book helped me see the light.  I chanced upon it during one of my regular lunchtime escapes to the bookstore near my workplace.  

Unlike the two books before, this was a relatively unknown book, "The Road to Financial Freedom" by Bodo Schafer.  Schafer is a German millionaire, author and "money coach", who was able to live off the interest from his capital by the time he was 30 years old, so says the book intro.  Frankly, I didn't check his credentials.  I was that "gullible", you may say.  Thankfully, his book taught me things that became really useful later.  I shall touch about his book in greater detail in my next post because it has a much greater impact on me, in terms of the actions I took. 

Let me end this post with one caveat: Only you are in charge of your own financial future.

I have deliberately written in a very candid manner to show three things: 1) my financial journey was not a linear learning curve - learning came from scattered sources. Mistakes were made, we learnt.  We make new mistakes, we learn again, 2) You do need a lot of faith if you choose this path and a very supportive partner/spouse to journey with you and lastly 3) Believe that the world is here to help you when you are ready. It's important to believe because if not, you will stop searching. 

In my next post, I will share on the book which literally changed my everyday actions.  

Saturday, 26 July 2014

For Richer, For Poorer?

For Richer, For Poorer?

Do you hide a secret stash of money away, unknown to your spouse?  Or understate the amount that you spent on your credit card?  Well, there’s a term for that: Financial Infidelity.   It’s to describe any secretive act of spending, holding money or even incurring debt, with the intent to hide it from one’s partner or spouse.

I’ve come across that term from a book sometime back but only recalled it recently when I read a small but interesting news report.  The report spoke of a lucky man from Taiwan who won NT3 million in prize money, but specifically asked that the lottery company keep his win a secret from his wife!  The company went on to add that this was not an isolated case.  There had been seven winners, including women, who had asked to do the same. They’re just the exceptions, I thought at first.  But later, on reflection, I realized that this is indeed a sad but true fact of life for quite a number of couples I know, albeit on a much smaller scale…

There was this friend who shared how she had sold some wedding jewellery and decided to keep the cash in a secret stash.  Yet another was bemoaning how tough but necessary it was to under-declare to her husband the amount she spent on a particular high-ticket item.   What really puzzles me sometimes is why they could confess their doings to us mere friends or acquaintances, yet found it difficult to face their significant others?

And this is happening not just among females. In Shanghai where we used to stay, it is a tradition for wives to hold the purse strings with full access to their spouses’ accounts.  In some companies, some male workers would request that their bonuses be paid in cash and not through their usual bank accounts, so that their wives could not find out.  One way to circumvent the family CFO!

There are many reasons for financial infidelity: an overly-stingy spouse, a spouse who nags too much or “my mother kept a stash away too”.  Under certain rare instances, I suppose, the reasons could be valid.   However, I am personally strongly against it.  It may start small but small things do add up, leading to an erosion of trust and confidence in each other.

In the States, financial infidelity is reported to be a rising trend and the cause for 16 per cent of divorces. Luckily, there are ready experts who have written great books on how to deal with this already.  If you’ve the time and the interest, do zoom in on the following books, which I have handpicked  – from where else… our trusty library of course:
1)   Financial Infidelity: Seven Steps to Conquering the the #1 Relationship Wrecker, by Bonnie Eaker Weil
2)   Financial Bliss: A Couple’s Guide to Merging Money Styles and Building a Rich Life Together, by Bambi Holzer
3)   Financially Ever After: The Couples’ Guide to Managing Money, by Jeff D. Opdyke
4)   Women, Men & Money: The Four Keys to Using Money to Nourish Your Relationship, Bankbook and Soul, by William Francis Devine, Jr.

Speaking from personal experience, I can say my marriage has not only enriched me spiritually, mentally but financially as well.  My conclusion: marriage and money can and should mix.  I am no expert on how to help couples sort out their financial issues and problems but can only share the following “quote” from which the heading for this blog entry came from:

I take you to be my lawfully wedded spouse, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

I sincerely wish you a financially blissful marriage!

(This article first appeared in CPF IM$avvy Bloggers' Corner.)

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Taking the emotion out of buying your dream home

When I buy stocks, I find myself unattached emotionally to the share or the company.  It’s generally easy to buy, hold or sell and costs are transparent.

However, things are not the same when it comes to hunting for our property.  After all, it’s going to be our home for years to come.  We are going to sleep in it, eat in it and share many of our family memories in it, for years.    We have to love it, or at the very least, like it.  Therein, I think, lies the pitfall of many a property buyer. 

We become too emotionally invested in it, so much so that we fail to dissect the property and see it as it really is - a consumer item which has its costs and benefits attached.  It’s also probably one of the most expensive items you will ever buy in your lifetime, yet the way we approach it seems to be a little cavalier.

My husband and I bought a private property many years back just before the property market went downhill.  It was, on hindsight, an emotionally-swayed one although we didn’t see it as such during those heady property times.  Property prices were rising and we could not see how we could afford a property in the future if we were to “miss the boat”. 

Just then, my husband’s colleague had also bought a newly-launched property in the east and he was one of the few astute investors we knew back then. Surely, we thought, he must be doing this for a good reason. So, after vewing the showroom twice, we bought a unit there. High floor, no pool view and no west sun.  We waited for the TOP while still staying in our own flat.   Frankly, we weren’t sure whether we would shift in or rent it out.  Our goals were not clear.   We just knew we had to get one, well, because everyone else seems to be doing it or thinking of it.

To cut a long story short, we ended up renting it out as we still needed to stay near our in-laws who were taking care of our young children.   As the market slowly went downhill and hit by a double whammy of a slowing economy and rising interest rates, we saw our home loan instalments going up but our rental stayed the same.  The colleague sold his unit at a good price but ours took a long time to get any offers.  Later, we realised, buyers seem to love pool views and our unit was, in some buyers’ opinions, at a rather high floor.  We finally sold it at a loss.

It was a painful lesson. A lesson, I hope, readers like yourselves will learn from too.   The learnings we gleaned from it were priceless though.  Now, my husband and I steer clear of emotions when we talk about property purchases.  To avoid history repeating itself, we decided we will zoom in specifically on resale units where you can at least touch and feel the “product” instead of visualising it from some glossy marketing brochure.

These are some things we do to take the emotion out of our home hunting:

1)   Discuss and agree on the “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves” in the property you want before you even step into any viewing.  This clears your mind as to what it is you are really looking for in your property.  Hopefully, it also lessens the amount of friction between husband and wife when it comes to selecting your dream home.

2)   Check out URA transacted prices, maintenance fees, any impending sinking fund top-ups etc which involve your own outlays

3)   View as many units as available.  I cannot overstate this. I now keep a file, no – two files - of all the units we have viewed with scribbled notes.   

4)   View the property in the day and evening time, taking note of the sun, noise and traffic conditions.

5)   Never fall for “preview” pressure tactics or agent “counter-offer” tricks.

6)   Be ready to walk away from a deal.  There will always be a good one.  Patience shall be rewarded.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Frugality: Nature or Nurture?

There was an interesting debate going around at a friends' gathering recently. Why is it that some people can resist impulsive buys but others just can't help themselves? Why are some people easily "contented" but others feel they need to be "rewarded" regularly with things they like?  Are you born frugal or was it your environment that made you so?

The debate got a little more specific and an interesting exchange followed. Two guys in the group were recounting why they were hooked on buying the latest games.

Half in jest, one went on to explain: he came from a poor family and was always envious of his well-off neighbours who could afford the latest appliances and material things. Unfortunately, his parents couldn't and wouldn't buy for him. Now that he could earn his own keep, it was time to make good what he didn't have.  The other friend countered, saying he was the opposite.  He wished his parents were stricter with him.  Instead, they showered him with toys as a kid and now, it was too late for him to quit. He was hooked!

Two completely different reasons, yet the same result.  Was it nature's fault then that some people were born to be spendthrift? To answer that question, maybe we should examine the question itself: "Frugality: Nature or Nurture?"

I admit, I deliberately phrased the question as such.  Many would think it's probably a combination of both.  Either way, it would make it rather easy for one to "justify" one's own decisions without really taking responsibility for it, wouldnt it?  E.g. "I had no choice: I'm born like this" ("Nature") or "My friends are all buying it!" ("Nurture").

Maybe thinking about it another way would help.  It is down to one's belief system - the sum total of my past experiences and influences and ultimately, what I myself choose to absorb or ignore.

I changed my beliefs after reading many financial books.  I was never a true blue spendthrift but over time, became a lot more aware of how my "happiness" doesn't necessarily increase with every dollar increase in my spending. I realized too that when we buy things (except the bare necessities), it is really with the belief that it will buy us more happiness, more time, a better image, increased self-esteem, or will position us with the "in-crowd".  The list goes on.

Being just more mindful of why we spend money, I then began to think of ways on how not to spend money and yet increase my level of happiness or whatever it is I was seeking. There are indeed many other ways and they don't cost as much as before or some even come free. I began to read books from the library, spend more time doing simple things with the people I love, make our own meals, take walks in the park, exercise, care about my friends more instead of showering them material gifts and well, just making the most of what I already have. I also stayed away from so-called "friends" who only care about what you have, not what you truly are.

I suppose, that's how "contentment" sets in.  Frugality was just a by-product of this belief system.

Perhaps the words of celebrity actress, Keira Knightly, neatly sums it up.  She reportedly gives herself a US$50,000 budget every year for personal expenses even though she has an estimated net worth of $50 million, and insists on separating her personal life from her high-flying acting career:  "I think living an expensive lifestyle means you can't hang out with people who don't live that lifestyle,"she says. "It alienates you. Some of my best, most hilarious times, have been in the least luxurious places."

Think of the last time you were really happy.  Did it come about because you spent a lot of money?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A 10-year Financial Goal that Took 14 Years - We Finally Did it!

We did it!  My husband and I have officially reached our financial goal that was set in the year 1999.

Our goal was to reach $X dollars in net worth by the age of 40 so that we could be financially independent, with zero debts and a certain specified standard of living.   It  was meant to take ten years but took 4 years longer.  

Truth be told, we weren't even sure if we could reach that goal in our lifetime.  It was a long shot.  A very long shot.    Vividly remembered the scene then.  I was pregnant with our first child.  Financially, we had two home loans to take care of then.  We were also planning to take a loan to buy a used car because the family was growing.  We set down our goals, specifying the amount of net worth we will attain, the type of car we will drive, the house we will live in and even right down to how many vacations we can afford per year.  I had it typed out and we both kept it close to our hearts.

Then life took over.  Our second child came along. I quit my full-time job to stay home with the kids so it was down to only one stable income - my husband's.  My husband was expatriated and the family moved a couple of times.  We were repatriated.

But not a day went by when we didn't keep to this dream and faith that we would be financially free and independent one day.  On hindsight, I think it was a combination of a frugal, prudent lifestyle; regular, sound stock investments and pure good luck that helped us.

To reach one's goals, it has to be measured.  And measured we did.  Every month, I would update our Net Worth Chart on my husband's pay day.  I would then share it with him and we could discuss for a while what happened in the month and what plans we have ahead.  For 14 years and counting, we did that.  That's how we know: small actions done consistently can yield big results too.

Our net worth grew 8.5 times during the period, with an average of 20% per year but that didn't come without some bad years.  At its worst, net worth grew a mere 2% in 2008 (even including salary and dividends) because our stocks were beaten down by the financial crisis.  At its best, and in the very next year 2009, net worth played catch-up with a 50% increase!  We held on to our belief that stocks are the way to invest Warren-Buffett style and bought more when share prices were thrashed.

It helped very much too that we had a few years of expatriation where almost everything was paid for.  That was the "good luck" part.

Our lifestyle hasn't changed much.  Our idea of never over-indulging has rubbed off on our children. So, even though we have lived the "rich" expat life, we did not have much culture shock adapting to living in a cosy apartment or eating hawker food when we returned to Singapore.

I think for our next goal, it is to allow my husband to pursue his interests without having to hold a "job" job.  It is time to go back to the drawing block again.  I can't wait.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Club Med - 10 Ways to Make It Worth Your Money!

The name "Club Med" immediately conjures up images of sea, sand, beaches, sports or simply "luxury".  So why would a frugal family like ours decide to go for a 4D3N trip there for our June vacation?  Firstly, there was a promotion which reduced the original price by up to 40% and secondly, airport taxes and fees have really gone up and I don't relish paying for flights out.  Finally, after coordinating schedules, we decided to go to the Club Med at Cherating instead of Bintan, hoping to relive the enjoyable family driving trips we had back in the good old days when our kids were still in baby car seats.

It was a pleasant surprise that even though we paid premium prices for this trip (nearly $3000 or $750 per person), I realized there are always ways to maximize your package.  Here are some tips we gathered during the trip:

1) Arrive earlier than stipulated check-in time of 3pm
Although it is stated that check-in time is 3pm, we arrived there much earlier at 12.30pm as our journey there was much smoother than expected.  Apparently, between 12.30-1.30pm, it is standard policy for you to pay for lunch in Club Med once you enter its gates.  Buffet lunch was a hefty RM180 per adult & RM88 per child.  We took the advice of the security guard, drove to the next door (much cheaper) hotel and had our lunch there - at the grand total price of RM64 for four.  At 1.30pm, we were at the gates again and whisked off nicely to the Reception.  Apparently, our rooms were ready for us and we could go around with the activities of the day one-and-a-half hours earlier than check-in time!

2) Get ALL programme sheets at hand & extra copies too
Contrary to the "relax and let go" mantra at Club Med, you do need to do a little bit of planning if you want to fully enjoy the many activities it offers.  So, having all the necessary information on hand is crucial.  There are the standard "daily" programmes and the "special" programmes at Club Med.  For teenagers, there are also "PassWorld" programmes meant for 11-18 year olds.  Also, don't forget to ask for extra copies of the layout map.  I find it strange but for us, we were only given the standard "daily" program sheets and had to ask for the rest from the Recep.  Make sure your children and you each have a set.  The rooms are typically a good 5-10 minute walk from the main areas, so use a harvesack for carrying your barang-barang, to avoid making unnecessary trips to and fro.  But don't worry, after a day or half, you and your kids would get the hang of things and almost no planning is necessary after that.   If not, just check with any of the friendly GOs (Gentle Organisers) staff.

3) Carry sports shoes and swim trunks in your hand luggage
Even after checking in our rooms, it took a while for the staff to bring our big luggage to us.  The luggage contained our sports shoes and swimming gear and we nearly missed the timing for certain events because they were mandatory for sports. So, lesson learnt: don't leave these items in your big luggage.  Bring them along with you when you check-in your room and you are all set for your activities.

4) Outdoor Sports are the most worthwhile activities
My children went for Archery, Sailing, Flying Trapeze, Tree Top Challenge (much like the "Forest Adventure" here in Singapore), Kayaking, Rock Climbing and other small activities e.g. football, futsball, table tennis etc.  My husband learnt to sail solo in a day.  I went for the indoor sports e.g. Zumba and Yoga.  We all came to the conclusion that outdoor sports are the best value-for-money simply because equivalent courses are not cheap here in Singapore.  Just for comparison's sake, a one-time Grand Course Challenge at Forest Adventure is priced at $44 per adult.   However, here at Club Med, you can go for as many times as you wish, so it's really worth your while if you don't mind sweating it out in the hot sun whole day trying out all the outdoor activities.

5) Dine in small portions but try all varieties
You will never go hungry in Club Med. There are mainly three types of meal options: the Main Restaurant where there are standard buffet opened for breakfast, lunch and dinner; the Noodle Bar, which serves noodle meals during the periods when the Main Restaurant is closed and of course the famous Bars, which serve all manners of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and snacks at regular intervals (set up next to the Main Bar).  After a day and half of going for my favorite foods, I realized it's probably more worthwhile to go for small portions but try out each and every variety.  Of course, this is up to personal preference.  But the way I look at it is, you may never get many opportunities to try that exotic Mexican cuisine but you probably can get good-tasting Nasi Lemak any day here in Singapore.  So, my tip is to go for variety rather than huge portions.  Having said that, I am no big eater myself, so I really "lose out" in this department.  My boys, however, went for huge portions.

6) Not the place to be a teetotaler 
The Bar is a fantastic place to hang out.  Choose alcoholic drinks but please don't drink if you're planning to do sports afterwards. I don't want you going all tipsy while trying out mid-air trapeze stunts.  Best to do it in the evenings when the live bands are playing.  If you were doing this in Singapore, you will be probably be set back by at least $50-$100 per pax in such an environment.  My husband would try out a different alcoholic drink every time we hit the bar.  I see people guzzling down glasses of beer too.  You don't have to go to that extent but well, you get the picture.

7) PassWorld for Teenagers (plus other children's clubs)
If you think babysitting is expensive here in Singapore, then you would really love Club Med. They have programmes for young ones and teenagers.  I am very impressed with the way the staff handled my teenage boys.  They were gainfully occupied for the whole day, including having lunch and dinner with the group.  Being teenagers, they were a little reluctant to join in the performance at night (which was part of the programme for the day) but somehow, they ended up doing four dance items!  The program was a good mix of sports and activities which meant that the parents get a lot of couple-time together and the real benefit was the children ended up doing a lot more sports rather than staying cooped up indoors with the computer or books.  And they learnt to quickly socialize too. 

8) Nightly entertainment shows and dance nights
At 9.15pm sharp, the shows start.  These are performances put up by the staff.  Standards may vary from night to night but for us, the "Circus Show" on the last night of our stay more than made up for all the performances we have seen.  It was a heart-stopping one-hour show put up by the "Trapeze" GOs.  In fact, my yoga teacher by day was up there performing full splits and back bends in mid-air supported only by a strip of white cloth!   It was one thing to watch such acrobatic acts close-up, but quite another to personally know the performer.  And you're free to take as many pictures with the GO staff as you wish.  After that, head down back to the bar to join in the "dance routines" set up by the GO staff. It's like a Zumba-inspired party, plus free-flowing drinks and really spunky instructors.  Can you imagine doing this in Singapore?  You'd be somehow be distracted by thoughts of how you can get home safe and sound or by how much money you're spending on drinks.  Not here, well, because everything is "pre-paid".

9) Don't ignore the small time-filler activities
My husband and I went for the "in-between" half-hour activities e.g. shoulder massage lesson by the Spa.  It was quick and easy and I learnt a few tricks to help relieve my husband's aching shoulders and neck after his long drive.  This turned out to be one of those things I could literally "bring home" from Club Med.

10) Check out on time but stay on for lunch and activities
This is perfectly legitimate because we asked the Front Desk!  Check-out time is strictly 11am or you will be charged for each extra hour of late check-out.  What you can do is place your luggage with the Recep.  We then went to the Forest Challenge and Flying Trapeze again.  There are excellent shower facilities equipped with clean towels and toiletries that you are free to use.  You just need to pop by the Recep to get your clean clothes from your luggage before that.  The four of us then popped in the restaurant again for a lovely buffet lunch.  If you can afford the time, stay on.  However, we had to leave by 2.30pm as we still had a long drive home.

There are more tips but hey, this is a vacation, so I thought these 10 should be good to start you off without too much work.  If you know of any or have any questions, please feel free to drop me a comment.