Hard Decisions that Eventually Paid Off to Build Our Reserves
In our early twenties, as a couple, we bought the the biggest HDB flat we could afford at a very remote (read "Ulu") area. It was an Executive Maisonette in Woodlands, when the MRT was not ready yet. There also very few shops and amenities closeby. It used to take me almost two hours' commute just to reach my office in the town area. It was a "leftover" flat that no one wanted and was relatively cheap for its size because of that. We were confident that Woodlands would grow because we researched on the URA Masterplan and were ready to suffer through long commutes in the first years.
Five years later, we made another difficult decision - to "downgrade" to a smaller older 5-room flat. Most Singaporeans would think upgrading to a private property was the next step but we felt we wanted to hold back on that till much later. To ensure we were not pressed to sell at an undesirable price, we sold our maisonette before purchasing the new one. There was a 3-month gap in between while waiting for the our new home to be ready. Thankfully, we could stay with our in-laws, albeit cramping in a bedroom for a family of four. Those were the times when it was possible to "cash out" after selling one's HDB flat. That added money to our coffers, which we quietly invested into our stock portfolio.
In our mid-thirties, my husband was offered an overseas posting to China with expatriate terms. Simple decision it seemed to just take it - because people tend to think an expat lifestyle means you save a lot. But it wasn't exactly a straightforward one because firstly, it was a job position that was a "lateral" move for his career, not a "promotion" per se. We weren't sure if this would put his career on a negative trajectory and even whether he would get a job back in Singapore in due course. After all, someone else was offered the posting earlier and he rejected it!
In our decision-making, one big factor to consider was our kids' education. Many returning expat kids had trouble adapting to the local system and some even had to enroll their children in international schools because of that. And of course, the big question was: could we adapt to the country we were going to?
We eventually decided to go. My husband and I made a concerted decision that we would continue with our frugal lifestyle even with all the trappings of expat lifestyle. The last thing we want was to have our boys grow up with a "sense of entitlement". Those five years of overseas living were instrumental in helping us to not only save on living expenses, but also accumulate cash in our goose account.
Next was the question of whether to rent out our HDB apartment when we were overseas. Frankly, we weren't exactly sure how long we would be expatriated. While our posting was on a two-year contract, we had heard cases where you may be repatriated after one year. Friends and family have also told us horror stories of tenants who damaged the property or worse, illegal tenants and eviction cases,We also wondered if we should keep the flat for ourselves to stay in when we return for our yearly "holiday" back in Singapore. And what if we had to suddenly return for good?
After considering various factors, we decided to go ahead to rent out the whole flat. We kept it rented even if not at the best market rate at that time. The aim was to lessen the "unoccupied" period in between tenants. The accumulated rent earned through those years came in handy but I must add that when we returned to Singapore, we had to spend money to repair and refurbish it again to a state that we could live in.
It was kind of depressing when I retrieved the apartment after those five years, as there was damage to the kitchen cabinets and the house looked really drab. I spent the first month back in Singapore just cleaning the house and making it livable again. Without a maid, it was hard work because I also had to adjust the kids back to the local education system, while husband was in China to handover his job. I took comfort in the fact that even after deducting costs and renovations, renting out the unit yielded us the best returns financially.
We all face financial crossroads and hard decisions at some point in time as a family. Through it all, what really helps is to discuss candidly with your other half and making sure that you both are fully aligned in your decisions. If things don't go as planned, we will have to take the consequences as a family too and resolve them together. We did argue as a couple sometimes but we stuck through it.
Notwithstanding all that, I am the first to admit that we were also lucky. Some of this luck was given to us. Some we created ourselves :).
Credit: Picture source