I was selfish, not broke
Nine experiences that helped me build wealth and happiness
a summary of my money philosophy:
- Save some money to bet on myself. Bet on projects, ideas, and visions.
- Invest in my friends’ curiosities, ambitions and projects
- Be reflective with purchases — ask, is this vital? Useful? Meaningful?
- Tip well
- Develop an honest dialogue with oneself. Am I broke, or am I choosing to spend my money elsewhere? Why?
- Money is a vote in this world — have it reflect personal values.
- Stuff is a burden to freedom; purchase material things intentionally.
- Money is psychological as much as it is tangible; always consider emotions, time and energy as part of each investment.
- Define luxuries and saving goals, but don’t wholly splurge on them.
Disclaimer: my philosophy or take on money is not perfect nor optimal. I think you can choose to enjoy more material things or define your luxuries differently.
1) One to Zero: betting on myself by emptying my bank
At 15, I had $800 in my savings.
I spent it all on a trip to Vancouver.
Months of savings chipped away instantly on my walk back from school. All so I could speak on a panel.
But that panel at BC Tech summit kick-started my career; it was the seed for the speaking portfolio that got me on corporate stages like Microsoft, IKEA and PWC.
I bet on myself, and it paid off over time.
After Vancouver, I worked my minimum wage job, until, days before my 16th birthday, I got a job offer at a startup (TKS).
This new job of a program success manager prompted my last-minute gap year, turned into 2 years on the job, and was how I was saving for university.
Despite the gap year, I pilled up on courses to graduate high school on time (i.e. four years on paper even though I only went for 3).
The when uni rolled around, I got two full-ride scholarships.
I had money saved without a clear purpose anymore. I invested most (into a property). But I still set some aside.
So I could bet on myself. Specifically, on my idea of a conversation starter for women’s health (aka boobblurb.com).
That first bet on Vancouver was a baby step. After that, I took bigger bets, like moving to Amsterdam and taking my gap year. These set me up for my larger bet on Boob Blurb. And hopefully, Boob Blurb is a small bet in the grand scheme of things soon.
Ultimately, each time I take a chance on myself, put my skin in the game, which makes me intentional about making my investments worthwhile. It’s how I’ve yielded an interesting life by the age of 18.
2) The $42 Gift Certificate
A few years ago my friend moved across the country.
Then one day we caught up over FaceTime.
She told me about her new goal: completing an online Harvard course. I don’t remember what the course was about.
But I remember how her eyes drooped like a thirsty flower at the mention of costs. I asked her how much the certificate was.
“Let me e-transfer it. Please. I want to support your curiosity! I am glad this excites you.”
It took some polite resistance banter, but she let me gift it to her.
42$ was 20% of my bi-weekly pay-cheque back then.
Yet I left the call the happiest I’d been in a month.
I learned that investing in others is a sustainable joy. It sticks around for longer and has a higher endurance than self-centred splurges.
3) “Is the extra 50 cents for cream cheese really worth it?” — Ponderings of a new young woman in the workforce.
I was paid well for a 16-year-old. And my expenses were low (living at home).
I had money joining my savings.
After a few months of working my ‘real’ job, something became vital to me:
I want to be scrappy with myself so I can be generous with others.
I learned this because I felt a strong fulfillment supporting people (gifts, events, donations, etc). I also realized I loved the game of frugality (i.e., buying what I needed out of use or learning instead of vanity or luxury).
Having that extra wiggle-room as a young adult gave me the freedom to experiment with my spendings. So: yes, meaningful convos over dinner is my vibe. No, Starbucks to-go is not my thing.
I strive for my spending to be conscious and intentional. But how have I been getting there?
I’ve learned to be intentional by being resourceful. I’ve learned to be resourceful by being curious. So I ask questions like: whose floor could I sleep on? Which events on campus have free food? What would the return on investment be for this $50 purchase? What else could I do with this item?
I shop with speculation.
4) The day I learned that my heroes were once tip workers
A few years ago, I ordered pizza with my family friend — someone close enough to being my dad. Being a cheap teenager, I asked if we needed to leave a tip — what an excellent way to save a few dollars, I thought.
After asking, he shifted his gaze from his computer screen to the centre of my eyeballs.
Silence poured into the room. It shuffled the curtains, rattled the Christmas ornaments and sprawled on the couch. Silence turned into my dad describing his first New Years’ Eve in Canada. Delivering pizzas, then lingering by people’s doors, hoping for a tip.
I started to tear up; he was now an accomplished engineer, but was once at the mercy of others’ kindness.
I have never missed a tip since.
I’ve vowed never to be cheap at the expense of someone else’s service
5) Launching a Business: (and realizing that people tend to be selfish)
When I launched my women’s health conversation starter, I texted a few friends that I thought would love it. Many enthusiastically texted back; they wanted to buy the game and share it around. Many were my first customers ❤️.
— other friends surprised me. They’d say, “that’s so cool! I’m low on money, but otherwise, I’d love to support you!” Of course, I understood that not everyone has a spare $30 to support their friend’s just-launched endeavours.
However, a few days after saying they’re low on funds, those same folks would post pictures with their venti Starbucks drinks or breakfast at a luxury hotel.
It felt like the friends I’d support in a millisecond were brushing me off for a caramel Frappuccino.
Their Instagram stories and rejection texts would flash in my mind together. Their juxtaposition mde me anxious me a little before bed. Until I swallowed the truth: people have egos. We are wired to support ourselves first.
“Broke” is an easy rationalization of “I’d rather spend on myself.”
Soon, I’d notice how I do this too. (I — we — have to prioritize our resources somehow). I feel scarcity in my resources and I choose to invest in myself often. I try to balance with investment in others, but I am not perfect at it.
Nonetheless, I became more cognizant of how I use a narrative of “I’m broke” to cover up the actual narrative of “I’d rather spend this on myself.” I’m reversing that narrative so that I can live truthfully with myself and my bank account.
No need to cover it up to make something I do look prettier. I should be proud of my actions in their naked form.
(note — of course, no one is obligated to buy anything I create. But for the childhood friends I’ve tried to love and support dearly, it stung when they didn’t. But everyone is entitled to freedom of resource allocation).
6) Supporting others, regardless if they reciprocate
I like to show up. I love being at my friends’ openings (shows or businesses), their first follower, their #1 fan.
When I launched my business, it was interesting to not feel that energy reciprocated back, or at least not to the level of engagement I give.
One day my boyfriend asked why I supported one friend who wasn’t as keen on supporting me back.
I told him that I’m prefer living through the principle of supporting others I believe in and care about, even if they don’t reciprocating.
Likewise, I don’t want to live according to the principle of not supporting one’s close friends.
I behave the way I think they deserve to be treated (which is agnostic to how they treat me).
(There are nuances to this segment, like not supporting people who I disagree with on a moral level. But those people aren’t often my friends.)
7) Learning the burden of stuff by moving into and out of uni
When I started solo travelling in 2018, I’d typically take a mini suitcase (like half the size of a carry-on). People would gasp. How did you fit all your stuff in there?
I’d respond: “well, I shook out the fluff from my life.”
By the time I moved into uni in 2021, I was a seasoned packer. I had merely a suitcase and a half of things. I started small and only bought things as they declared a demonstrated need in my life.
I left uni with a few more things, but ultimately I’m only going home with one and a half suitcases.
It’s easier, and I’ll save many $37 fees.
I also realize that I’ll be moving around a lot over the next few years. For one, I am an international student in a scholarship program with loads of travel/exploration opportunities. Baggage is heavy and expensive. I’d rather travel light. I’d rather live with things I need.
I value travel over things. Travel is easier with less stuff. So, I’ve become a physical minimalist.
8) An impactful reading: “The Psychology of Money.”
Annually, since 2018, I’ve read the psychology of money.
There have been three takeaways that have stuck with me:
- The appeal of a humble, compounding life. The article tells the story of Grace, a quiet lady who died with $7 million (which went to charity). She lived with everything she needed and compounded her savings to end with a great bang. She never lived externally like a multi-millionaire. I love recalling her story and leaning on her strength to choose need over greed.
- There are hidden costs to spending money (e.g. the emotional cost of watching money you spend to go into the stock market). Thus, money is not the only thing of value to protect and strive for in life.
- “Wealth is what you don’t see”… “If you see someone driving a $200,000 car, the only data point you have about their wealth is that they have $200,000 less than they did before they bought the car.”
Similarly, my favourite book, Sapiens, emphasized the psychological side of money; how money is just a story we humans have created and agreed upon. Money’s story intersections with other fictions — like the story of countries and the stock market.
This literature helped me view money more from a social science/ behavioural lens rather than just an economic one.
So, in addition to staying aware of my financial standing, I also stay aware of my biases, ego, and ways I can choose need over greed.
9) My first trip to California & defining my personal ‘luxuries.’
After thickening my savings, my first big purchase was a one-month trip to Vegas and California in Feb 2020. Because I’d saved for so long and found great deals, I didn’t blow up my savings like the time I went to Vancouver.
But also, by saving for so long, I became reflective of what I really craved. Instead of quickly spending my money on short-term desires, I became aware of what I wanted that wasn’t a fad.
There are three main things I save for (to spend on):
- Travel, especially to connect with other people. (I am actually writing this from the Burbank Airport, after visiting my friends Adrienne, Noel and Gracie… and on my way to visit my friend Amelia ❤). I’d love to get a car, maybe in 2 years, so I can really take on a roadtrip lifestyle.
- Coffee shops when I sit there for 3+ hours. It’s my productive heaven.
- Books! I like buying books second-hand or through kindle so I can write in them. I also like giving them away after I read them, so they can have a longer life inspiring others. My bookshelf and book piles always make me vibrantly grin. :)
I wasn’t always like this, but oh gosh, am I happy I’ve changed —
My high school was in an affluent neighbourhood, which fostered a distorted view of the world. I was from the “cheaper” area, so I often felt like the outlier, not relating to anyone’s family’s bank account.
I used to crave nice, branded clothes — like the other girls — or beautiful Pinterest-perfect Fiji vacations. I thought my value as a person was tied to what I had. So I’d be scrappy such that I could spend money on my image. I thought I was a good saver; instead, I was an exploitive saver that spent in the end.
Thankfully I couldn’t go too far in my spending, and at a young age, I met people from more diverse walks of life. As a result, I adjusted my values and realized that generosity and selflessness were far more important to me than image and external prestige.
I used to think I was broke. But really, I was selfish. I wanted my life to look a certain way to other people. And I was willing to spend my money, hence empty my bank, to get there.
My journey with money, life and work has been longwinded. But the reason I chose the title: “I was selfish not broke” is because honesty has been essential to my learning. The reality is I have been extremely privileged and lucky. Perhaps I have met and seen people who’ve been better off financially on paper, but in the grand scheme of the world I am very, very, very lucky.
When I did start to make more money, I tried to guard it. But, only when I freed myself from my own greed could I see the truth of my privilege. I had enough money. I had enough things. I didn’t need to be glamourous to be loved.
And soon, I’d unlock the purest joy money has bought me: being there for other people.