A penny saved is a penny earned

Many millionaires work hard and lead frugal lives, eschewing the gilded trappings of luxury


To most of us, a millionaire is a person who lives in an expensive house and drives a luxury car.

But when I was a stock market dealer for a few years in a rare foray outside financial journalism, I discovered something rather odd: A lot of the so-called rich people do not actually have much wealth.

Some of them have high-paying jobs and live very lavish lifestyles which convey the impression that they are rich.

But, as it turns out, having a big income is not the same as being wealthy. Quite a number of them spend all the income that they earn. They literally live from pay cheque to pay cheque.

Worse, they sometimes gamble big time on the stock market to try and finance their high spending habits. As my remisier friends, who extend big credit lines to these so-called high net worth clients, would later discover to their dismay, these are the people who are more likely to be tardy with payments on their stock purchases.

As I grew older and wiser, I stumbled onto something even odder: A lot of genuinely rich people live very ordinary lifestyles. They don't resemble the millionaires etched in our imagination at all.

And when they lose money on their stock trades, it can be a nightmare trying to get them to pay up on their losses. Some remisiers even have to resort to legal action to get these clients to clear up their outstanding debts.

As I grew older and wiser, I stumbled onto something even odder: A lot of genuinely rich people live very ordinary lifestyles. They don't resemble the millionaires etched in our imagination at all.

One example would be the owner of a small jewellery workshop whom I got to know through a mutual friend. He lives in a four-room HDB flat, takes the MRT to work and eats at a hawker centre. He also works very hard - six days a week - in order to attend to the needs of his customers.

He does not have a credit card and pays for all his purchases - including the two condos he bought overseas - in cash.

While he is generous to a fault with his family and friends, he can be extremely frugal in his personal spending. For example, he had not done any renovations on his workshop for 25 years, but when he did so recently, I was surprised that the contractor offered him $25,000 to take away the carpet.

Considering that most of us have to shell out a small fortune to do our own home renovations, I found it a tad difficult to believe.

But he explained that over the years, the carpet had been sprinkled with gold dust as his craftsmen worked on the jewellery commissioned by his clients. "The contractor paid me $1,000 for every year that I had the carpet, to get the gold," he said.

Still, to the rest of us, what he had done was the equivalent of converting something to be discarded into solid gold.

My friend reminded me of the blue-collar millionaires featured in the US bestseller, The Millionaire Next Door, which offers some pointers on how a person can amass wealth, despite the lack of an inheritance or a degree from a top university which, to many of us, means a ticket to a top-paying job.

In the book, authors Thomas Stanley and William Danko describe what they felt was an American phenomenon - the rags-to-riches stories of entrepreneurs who believe in hard work and frugal lives.

But these are also the hallmarks of the anonymously rich who live in our HDB heartland and do not flaunt their wealth - but rather go about their lives like the rest of us ordinary folk.

It is a frugal culture that my parents and some in my generation can empathise with - the need to save in order to be financially secure in later years.

Being Chinese-educated, my friend would not have read The Millionaire Next Door even if he had the time, but he would have identified with some of the traits flagged by its authors that are shared by most millionaires:

1. They live well below their means. Even though they can well afford to live it up, they are not big spenders. Consequently, you are likely to find them living in the HDB heartland where their neighbours earn only a fraction of their income. They also shop at neighbourhood shops, rather than at upmarket shopping malls.

2. They believe that financial independence is more important than displaying social status. As a businessman in the jewellery trade, my friend encounters other rich people all the time. But he does not spend time or money trying to catch up with them by acquiring high social status artefacts such as designer clothing, jewellery or cars. Instead, he adheres to the maxim that a penny saved is a penny earned.

3. They know the importance of thrift. Many millionaires are thrifty because their parents taught them to save from a young age. They, in turn, teach their children and grandchildren to be financially self-sufficient like them. It is a trait that characterises the Chinese diaspora all over Asia whether they are in Singapore, Hong Kong or Shanghai.

4. They are proficient in targeting market opportunities. Essentially, the wealthy become wealthy because they are in businesses which serve other wealthy people, like my friend in the jewellery trade. They also enjoy what they do for a living.

For me, the biggest lesson I have learnt from my friend is that there is no need to do something all that extraordinary in order to achieve financial success. If his example is anything to go by, you don't even need a Harvard MBA to get rich.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline 'A penny saved is a penny earned'. Print Edition | Subscribe