Buying less things, financial independence and happiness

Nowadays, I find myself wanting less.

I want to buy less stuff, do less projects, set less goals.

In the meantime I want more meaning, more connection, more joy.

More life.

And what I have found is, wanting less makes me happy. Much happier than when I was wanting more.

The anguish of more; the happiness of less

Just a few days ago I was watching the documentary Minimalism.

It’s a film that suggests minimalism as an antidote – or THE antidote – to the havoc that rampant consumerism has wrecked on our lives, and the environmental impact it has on earth, our only home.

Rampant consumerism is us going crazy buying things that advertisers have promised can make us happier, skinnier, prettier, smarter, more successful. And at a faster and faster rate. (The promises are false by the way.)

Most of us are not immune to such promises – that includes you and me both.

And what is minimalism?

“Today’s problem seems to be the meaning we assign to our stuff: we tend to give too much meaning to our things, often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth, and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves. Want to own a car or a house? Great, have at it! Want to raise a family and have a career? If these things are important to you, then that’s wonderful. Minimalism simply allows you to make these decisions more consciously, more deliberately.” – The Minimalists

I couldn’t have said it better.

One of the experts interviewed in the Minimalism documentary said this:

“We don’t actually want all these things that we buy – what we really want is to feel whole and content.”

And might I add, happy.

With that we come to the root of the problem: happiness, or the lack of it.

Since we are not happy, we go out into the world trying to find happiness in a new iPhone or a new branded bag or a pair of limited edition sneakers or a new house.

Don’t we all know people who have everything they want and are still not happy?

Having a big goal like buying a new house gives us the illusion that we are okay – as long as we don’t get there. During the chase we are happy (and motivated) enough, but the moment we make enough to own that new house, the bubble bursts. We realize it isn’t what we are looking for after all. Emptiness returns. We create a new goal to chase after.

Perhaps we will finally find happiness there?

(Hint: we won’t.)

If a pill were invented right now that could give us the happiness and sense of purpose and meaning that we are all universally looking for, I’d like to hedge a bet that we would buy far fewer things.

That’s because we never needed those things to be happy or to feel fulfilled in the first place. It’s like eating a truckload of ice cream after getting dumped. You don’t actually want to eat it – because it makes you fat – but it helps.

That’s the problem – it does make you feel better. Temporarily, at least.

Same with buying things.

Financial independence

If money can’t buy happiness, what can it buy?

I didn’t buy new clothes for Chinese New Year this year. I figured that it’s not necessary to buy new clothes just for the sake of buying new clothes. The money I saved? It goes to my Financial Independence Fund.

What’s my Financial Independence Fund? It’s my savings. Every cent I earn – minus my essential monthly expenses – goes towards my savings. My goal is to reach a point where I have enough money to semi-retire or retire in 5 years’ time.

Yes, my goal is to semi-retire or retire when I am 35 (depending on how well things go). It sounds impossible, laughable even, because we grew up thinking we must work our entire lives – yet it doesn’t have to be that way. I like to think out of the box, and I like to think that there is another more rewarding path through life, and that path is financial independence.

To reach financial independence is to have enough money stashed away so you no longer have to work for a living (or you only have to work just a little – maybe once a week, or once a month – in order to sustain your lifestyle). Here’s a good beginner article about the idea of financial independence, if you are interested in finding out more.

So how do we get there? The first step is to stop buying so many damn things and start saving the money we would have used to buy those things.

F*ck you money

I’m not totally against buying things, as long as you are buying things you need or that add to your life. But you should not be spending so much money that you don’t have F*ck You Money in your bank.

What’s that?

Imagine if you have $50,000 in your bank, or $20,000, or even $10,000. One day you finally realize that you are working for a boss who doesn’t care about your welfare, or in a corporation where you are not valued as an employee. With money in your bank, you have the freedom to quit your job without worrying about being homeless. That’s called F*ck You Money.

If you don’t have F*ck You Money in your bank, you are essentially a slave, trapped in a job that you hate just because it pays the bills (that you yourself chalked up in the first place).

To have F*ck You Money in your bank, you save. There is no magic formula to it. If you think that giving up your expensive purchases or your high-flying lifestyle will cause your standard of living (or your enjoyment of life in general) to drop, then what about the sheer misery of having to work in a shitty job just because you don’t have any savings?

You might not have control over your terrible boss, but you have 100% control over your savings.

After saving for the last year, I have enough F*ck You Money to never get a full-time job ever again. Even if my freelance photography career tanks (hopefully it won’t), I have enough savings to tide me through until my next move, whatever that might be.

I wouldn’t have said the same thing two years ago. What has changed is that I have learned to save.

So… it’s simple. Buying less things means spending less. Spending less means having more savings. Having more savings means having more freedom.

A journey

On this blog I write a lot about how to live a better life. Today’s article is no exception. And like every article before this, I strive to live what I write about.

The beautiful thing is that these ideas – like minimalism, or like how buying less things can actually make one happier – really do work. They are not just theories or concepts. All you need to do is test them out in your own life and experience the benefits for yourself.

For me, it is a journey. I was a big consumer just a year ago. If you visit my house now, you will still see a lot of stuff (in the midst of learning how to declutter). What you will not see is how I have stopped buying many things that I would have bought just one year ago. What you also won’t see is the shift in my mindset and the questions I ask myself these days whenever I find myself tempted to buy something.

“Do I really need this?”

“Will I die without this?”

“Does this really add to my life?”

The practice of this philosophy of “less is better” – or minimalism – has greatly benefited me. And it can also be applied to not only personal finance but also to work, relationships, and life in general, because it helps you to sift through what is truly important and what is not.

But a disclaimer – I am still not there yet. There are so many things I haven’t learned about minimalism or how to be a more conscientious or environmentally-conscious consumer, but I am learning and I will keep learning.

I wish you luck and happiness and joy as always, my friends, and if you have any comments or stories to share, please feel free to share them below!

Keep showing up

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I almost didn’t make this week’s publishing schedule, mainly due to an intense week of photoshoots, photoshoots, and more photoshoots. I’ve been super busy.

But somehow skipping this week’s article was out of the question. I’d promised to write one article a week for this blog, and I’ve decided that I am going to do just that, rain or shine.

In the department of blogging, I have failed, been inconsistent, and given up an embarrassing number of times – but this time I truly want things to be different, and for that to happen, I have to start showing up, no matter how busy I am with the other (always seemingly more important) things in my life.

The art of showing up

When life gets busy or tiring or overwhelming it can be hard to show up and do the work. Harder than most people imagine.

Gary Vaynerchuck is famous nowadays for being a loud-mouth entrepreneur who can be seen on viral Facebook videos teaching people how to hustle and market themselves on the internet… But before this he was the creator and host of WineLibraryTV, a daily youtube series about wine that went on for 1,000 episodes.

Yes, ONE THOUSAND episodes, one a day, for five long years.

This is the first episode of the now legendary series.

He showed up every single day and built a massive audience over that time (growing WineLibrary from a $4 million dollar business to a $45 million business).

And the amazing thing is, very few people were watching his videos in the first two years, but he kept at it.

Not many people can do that.

People ask how they can build an audience, start a successful freelance career, grow a small business – that’s how. By showing up and doing the work every day. Over time people begin to hear about you. It’s inevitable.


A few friends have asked me how I find the time and commitment to keep writing for this blog.

It’s all about focus.

Besides my work as a photographer, I have decided to make this blog my priority this year. Not one of many priorities, but THE priority.

The process of sharing everything I have learned (no holds barred) about creative entrepreneurship and how to live an unconventional, successful life with people through this blog has been very fulfilling (and even educational) for me.

It’s still early days, but I have an intuition that if I keep at this consistently over the next few years, wonderful things are going to happen. And that’s because sharing openly – and helping others live a better and happier life in the process – is a tremendously valuable thing.

And the second reason is… that I am just really passionate about it. I have many ideas for the blog and I’m very excited about what is to come. And I truly enjoy doing this. Even though no one is paying me to write at the moment, I am still happy to spend a lot of my time working on it.

So since my blog is my priority, it’s always at the top of my mind. I’m always thinking and brainstorming about what I can do to make this blog better. I also derive a great deal of purpose and meaning from it. Yes, there are still a hundred other things I want to work on (being me), but I have realized that this is one of the most powerful things I can do right now – sharing, teaching, giving, without asking for anything in return.

Which is why I’m saying yes to this and no to the hundreds of other possible things I could be doing.

I’ve laid out the path, all I need to do is walk it.

(But you do need to know what is the one thing you should focus on and show up for. Give yourself some time to find your focus. Don’t just jump into the first thing you can think of. I recommend the book The One Thing as a good starting point.)


There is an almost perverse kind of pleasure in doing what you’d set out to do.

Planning to do something rocks. Dreaming of doing something rocks too. The actual doing… not so much sometimes.

It’s easy to succumb to laziness and to come up with excuses to avoid doing something we’d planned to do. Often we can even derive some pleasure from this avoidance. But it never lasts.

On the other hand, I have discovered that it can be fun to be, well, disciplined. Obviously, we can’t be disciplined all the time, but with things that really matter, DOING can be the most satisfying, fulfilling and happiest feeling ever.

(Fun tip: You don’t need to be disciplined about everything, just the essential things that, when done, can move you forward or nearer to your Big Goals in Life, caps mine.)

When you actually do something you’d set out to do, and you do that consistently over time, you are in a good place to make some very magical things happen in your life.

Don’t take my words for it. Try it for yourself.

A simple trick

Human beings are not good with abstraction. “I want to read more books in 2017” is a vague resolution that is probably not going to happen for most people, unless you use this little trick:

Be ultra-specific about your goal. Numbers and dates are your best friends.

For example, to make my blogging consistent, I have committed to writing one article a week every Thursday. It’s set in stone (except in the case of Extreme Calamities). It’s very specific – one article, not two. And it must be published every Thursday, not Monday or Wednesday or Saturday.

We humans work very well within constraints and limits (even if artificial).

Another example – you want to read a lot more books this year. Why not commit to reading at least 20 pages every week day? “20” is a number, “every week day” is a date.

Again, don’t take my words for it. Try it for yourself.

The simple guide to financial happiness

I never thought one day I’d be writing articles about personal finance or money, but here I am. Life is strange like that.

As a kid I was terrible at mathematics. That (and the insults from my fearsome Secondary Four A Maths teacher) made me steer away from anything to do with numbers.

Up until I was 27 (I turn 31 this year) there was never more than a few thousand dollars in my bank. I remember how there was once I hit $4,000 in my savings account, and it felt like I’d reached the pinnacle of my financial achievements.

I’m not very interested in status symbols, but I love food and books and travel and cameras and other hobby-related toys, so much of my money was spent on these stuff, lots and lots of stuff.

Oh, and whenever I’d accumulated about $2,000 in my bank, I’d feel rich enough to think I deserved a holiday. That was when you’d find me in front of the computer booking my next flight out of Singapore.

For much of my life I treated money like it was an afterthought, and spent it “like water”, in the exact words of my mum. It didn’t matter how little or how much money I had at any given time – I simply didn’t give much thought to how I handled or spent it.

I often consoled myself by thinking – I’m a creative and an “artsy” person, so I’m not supposed to be good at the money stuff… right?! People like us simply don’t have the genetic makeup for something as tedious as this – we have more important things to think about. Or so I thought.

I was never more wrong.

Like I said before, last year I had a rude awakening. I had been working very hard and earning money from photography since 2013, but by end 2015 I realized I’d managed to save very little money, having squandered about 90% of the money I had earned.

This threw me into panic mode. I was pissed. I was angry with myself. There was a lot of self-blame and confusion (where did my money go?!). I felt terrible that I’d worked so hard and had almost nothing to show for it – it was almost like I’d worked for nothing.

Suddenly I remembered something. A couple of years ago I’d been forced to see a fortune teller (long story) who had told me, “You have the potential to make a lot of money, but if you don’t know how to save, you are still going to end up poor.”

So when I was panicking about this situation back in end 2015, this little (ominous) statement from the fortune teller kept popping up in my head.

“…if you dont know how to save, you are still going to end up poor.”

My financial awakening

It took me awhile to figure this out: It’s not cool at all to be financially ignorant.

It’s not that I am suddenly a financial whiz or that I am now super rich. These haven’t happened yet, but since last year I have changed the way I think about money and that has made all the difference.

If I kept going the way I was going – spending money mindlessly, not bothering to save, spending on instant gratification rather than planning for my future – no matter how hard I worked, I would end up old and penniless.

This thought was scary enough to force me to start learning everything I could about personal finance.

One of my biggest inspirations has been the personal finance blogger Mr Money Mustache.

His writing overturned a lot of the wrong mindsets I had about money.

Because of his blog I was introduced to the concept of financial freedom, which blew my mind.

I never knew it was possible to retire young.

I never knew it was possible to be frugal and still enjoy life.

I never understood exactly how much advertising and society in general have brainwashed us into becoming such deeply entrenched consumers.

Also, the more I read and learned and studied, the more I figured out what all these rich and financially competent people have in common (and no, it’s not trust funds)…

How to become rich

The only way you can become rich is if you spend much less than you earn. Repeat that to yourself.

The only way you can become rich is if you spend much less than you earn.

It’s true of Warren Buffett, and it’s true of you and me.

Apparently, it doesn’t matter how much you earn. If you are a banker earning $30,000 a month who spends $40,000 every month on your expensive condo rental and on $400 dinners and $1,000 suits and a $2,000 per month car installment, you are going to be not just in debt but poorer than an admin executive who saves half of his $2,800 monthly salary.

Over one year, the banker is going to be $120,000 in debt while the admin executive is going to end the year with $16,800 in savings.

It’s bizarre, isn’t it?

Think of all the famous, supposedly dirt-rich people who splurge on mansions and yachts and private planes and go bankrupt.

And then think of my aunt and uncle who brought up three kids on a combined income of $3,000. And they still have money left over to go for holidays in Taiwan and Bangkok.

Having a high income is TOTALLY IRRELEVANT if you spend more than you earn.

It’s not how much you have, it’s how little you want

There is a brilliant little book titled The Millionaire Next Door.

It’s about how the truly rich often have frugal habits, live in smaller houses, drive cheaper cars (or not at all).

While the ones who are broke or in massive debt often appear to be rich simply because they live in big houses, drive big cars, own more expensive television sets.

It’s a sad facade.

Simple strategies

With regards to money, many of us are on auto-pilot. We inherit our parents’ attitude towards money or are influenced by our friends, or even by the media.

We want people to think we have made it. We spend money without thinking. We lust for condos that we cannot afford. We buy things that we don’t need and end up working so that we can earn more money buying things that we don’t need.

Many of us need to wake up, including myself.

And waking up is not enough. To achieve financial happiness, we must be willing to put in the work (as with any other thing worth striving for).

The following are practical strategies that I learned from my obsessive research on the topic of personal finance in my brave attempt to transform into a Financially Savvy Artsy Person™. I have put into action most of them – I really don’t want to write fluffy articles about things that don’t work in real life – and have benefited greatly.

I’m still learning and I still have a long way to go, but if you ask me, these will give you – as they gave me – a good start.

1. Track your expenditure

This is the number one thing you need to do if you want to overhaul your finances, because if you don’t know what you’re spending on, you won’t know what to cut out of your spending.

I use the excellent app Wally to do this. The idea is to track your expenditure religiously for an entire month so you have an idea of where your money goes. It’s somewhat laborious but crucial if you are serious about getting a grip on your finances.

(It took me maybe five false starts before I eventually managed to track my expenses for an entire month. Yes, the road to financial prudence can be a long and painful one, especially if you are as ill-disciplined and lazy as me.)

Use Wally to track all your cash expenses, and your credit card statement to track your credit card expenses. If you are Singaporean, Seedly is an app that allows you to connect your credit and debit cards – it then automatically tracks all your spending.

TIP: You must capture ALL your spending in order to have an accurate picture of your current financial situation.

2. Cut your spending ruthlessly

Once you know what you’ve been spending on, you can do the cutting down.

This is actually quite fun.

I’m sure you will find a lot of unnecessary expenses in your monthly spending, just as I did.

Subscriptions to online magazines and newspapers, Spotify, a brain training app, an online meditation programme… I cut all of that (except for Netflix, which I can’t seem to let go off, because… The Good Wife is the best TV show ever).

I stopped cabbing and got myself an EZLink card. I stopped buying books, my favorite all-time hobby that sets me back hundreds of dollars a month, a couple of thousand dollars a year. I ate out less, and if I did eat out, I would choose cheaper options. And dozens of other small things, but they add up.

(The underlying principle is: Do we really need all the things we think we need?)

But don’t just cut out the small stuff. I didn’t understand this at first until it was pointed out to me that my real problem lies in my big-ticket purchases – a $800 painting here, a $1,000 foldable bike there, a $3,000 trip overseas (still working on this).

So cut, cut, cut.

3. Start a separate savings account

Segregate your spending money from your savings. They are two completely different things.

For myself, after some research, I decide to start a separate savings account with CIMB. They only have branches and ATMs at two locations in Singapore, so it’s pretty hard for me to withdraw money from the account. That helps 😉

Don’t touch the money in this account. Unless you need the money to save a life.

4. Automate your savings

If you can only remember one thing from this article, it’s this – always save before you spend.

I’m a freelancer so my income can be in flux, so this is my little system: In my checking account, at the beginning of every month, I maintain a balance of about 3 months’ expenditure. Thereafter, every time I receive payment from my client, I transfer the entire payment directly to my separate savings account (see above). I’m into saving radically right now.

Every time we move into a new month, I top up my checking account so that the balance maintains at about 3 months’ worth of expenditure.

That also acts as my emergency fund. In case anything happens, I dip into it, but I never touch the money in my savings account.

If you are an employee, things are even more straightforward. Set up a Standing Instruction so that a certain amount of money is immediately and automatically transferred to your savings account the moment your salary comes in – out of sight, out of mind.

For some people that amount is 20% of their income every month; for some it’s 50%, and for others, 80% (in extreme cases). It’s up to you, but the more the merrier of course.

Remember to maintain an emergency fund so that you never have to use money from your savings account.

5. Increase your income

We have already established how important savings are, but once you know how to save, it’s time to work on increasing your income.

There are many ways to earn more money – get a part-time job, promote yourself more if you are a freelancer, start a small side-business, work as a virtual assistant on your days off, be a part-time florist via Instagram, change jobs, etc.

Yes, it’s not easy, and I applaud you if this is what you are trying to do right now, but I’m a firm believer of “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.

It always helps to know how other people before you have done it before. This is a podcast I like that is all about how to side hustle and also features stories about people who have managed to make money doing things as disparate as selling photos on Pinterest or earning an additional $3,000/month via their blog.

Not for the faint-hearted, but you are not faint-hearted, are you?

6. Invest your money

This is an area that I am still learning about, but in terms of investment, due to the effects of compounding over time, it’s best to start as early as possible.

Also don’t get the wrong idea that you can only invest in things like property or the stock market. Anything you do that allows your money to grow is a form of investment, and that can mean investing in yourself if you are a freelancer or a solopreneur or a small business owner. Buy books that can teach you a much-needed skill, go for an online course, join a workshop – in short, invest in upgrading your awesomeness, and use your awesomeness to earn more money!

If you are thinking of investing in a more traditional, low-cost but effective manner, index investing is a pretty good way to do it.

As JL Collins said, “Stop thinking about what your money can buy; start thinking about what your money can earn”.

6. Avoid debt

Don’t allow yourself to fall into debt. Avoid installments (it’s stupid). Reconsider your expensive masters degree that requires you to take out a hefty study loan (will it really give you better opportunities at work?). Use your credit card smartly (or cut them up if you are prone to spending future money with your credit cards).

In other words, debt is evil (unless you are using it to build the next Apple).

People who are in debt can never start to build wealth until they clear their debt. And we know how difficult it can be to demolish one’s debt. So don’t even get there. Just don’t.

Finally, what is “financial happiness”?

So we have got the practical strategies out of the way. Let’s get abstract now…

Financial happiness isn’t just about being rich. And it’s definitely not about having a lot of money.

To reach financial happiness is to be at a place where you are no longer trapped, fooled, or controlled by money.

You are the master of money, instead of its servant.

Look around you. Looks at the two kinds of people around you.

The ones who are lost in an almost automatic and life-long pursuit of wealth and achievement and external affirmation. They don’t seem to know what they are doing.

And on the other side, the ones who seem to be… in control, balanced, happy.

Who do you want to be?

We underestimate how much control we have over our lives. We think it’s fate or destiny or our genes. But really sometimes it’s just ourselves…

We really can be whoever we want to be.

So it doesn’t matter if you are in a bad place financially right now. The best time to change course is now.

I wish you all the best in your journey towards financial happiness, and if you have any personal finance related stories to share, please feel free to comment below.

Thank you for reading this long post, and I’ll be back next week!

Do difficult things

Contrary to what we usually believe… the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. – “Flow”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I believe in doing hard things, even though I’m not always good at practising what I preach.

Quite a few years ago I got into a habit of doing things that I didn’t feel like doing.

For example, every time I wanted to swim but felt like the pool was too cold for me to jump into, I made myself do it. Or when I didn’t want to eat healthy, I would make myself do the opposite and eat healthy instead.

Then I realised something – most of the things I didn’t feel like doing were things that were good for me, and I didn’t feel like doing them because they felt like a chore. But if I ignored how difficult the activity was and simply did it, I would reap its benefits and feel really… happy.

That’s basically what Csikszentmihalyi’s talking about in the quote above. His two main points are:

(1) Happiness is actually something we can create.

(2) We can create happiness by immersing ourselves in doing difficult but rewarding activities.

He wrote an entire book on this topic, so you can be sure that it’s a much more layered issue than I’ve made it seem, but I think he’s right.

Like a few months ago when I did a pretty big photoshoot in Kuala Lumpur – three full days of shoot, a huge crew, shooting in the blazing hot sun, a long shot list – it was so physically and mentally demanding that by the time we were done with the shoot, the happiness level of the entire crew went through the roof. If it had been a simple one-hour shoot, I don’t think we would have ended it with a good dinner at a famous tze char place in KL and a round of beer and big hugs and a pretty good feeling in our bellies.

Or how like when you have had a long, hard day at work and you come home and you crash on your sofa and you watch a really good show on Netflix like Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul and you think to yourself, ahhhh, now this is heaven. It probably wouldn’t feel the same if you had already been lounging at home the entire day being a couch potato.

We all want to find happiness. Sometimes we find it staring into the eyes of someone we love. Sometimes we find it on an airplane traveling 500 miles per hour towards a new city. But sometimes we find it in a hard and dark place, and when we finally emerge out of it we are drenched with satisfaction, peace and something resembling… happiness.