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Saturday, 14 April 2012

Living life by finding fulfilment without landing in debt

ARE you driven by a desire for instant gratification? Today, it has become a norm to splash the cash on ourselves, and it seems to be getting harder to keep in check the urge to spend and spend.

Unfortunately, current gain may mean future pain unless we are in control of our expenses. The good news is that it is possible to stay in charge if we know how to change our behaviour and what tools we need to do the job.

Falling prey

When the latest gadget or fad is in town, our lives seem to turn unbearably dull until we go out and get a piece of the action for ourselves.

We see others enjoying their iPads or Galaxy Note, and feel so left behind because we don't have one ourselves. A few months ago, we had barely spared a thought on it, but for some strange reason, it suddenly feels like we just cannot function without having one. So, before we can check ourselves, we've gone and bought one too, although we may not really know what we want to use it for, except endlessly checking our Facebook accounts.

That is just one among the many temptations around us that are competing for our hard-earned money. Media messages of dream getaways fuel our desire to go to enchanting overseas locations, and we can't wait to blow a small fortune on a holiday it has to be next month or we could almost burst.

Advertisements sell us the idea that we deserve to live a privileged existence, no matter what our station in life. We indulge in fine dining at the drop of a hat. When the stress of our jobs gets to us, shopping comes to the rescue in the name of retail therapy.

No wonder we find that there's a big hole in our pockets. For those of us who have become used to living life large, it may seem strange that not long ago, that was far from the norm. Just one generation earlier, it was quite usual for people to save patiently towards their financial goals, i.e. to delay gratification until they had the money to spend.

Before and now

If they wanted to buy a car, our folks would not simply look for the latest model, but consider what was on the second-hand market. They would save towards a bigger downpayment, to reduce the interest they have to pay on the hire-purchase loan.

The first step was to save, not seek enjoyment. They kept money aside for education and important financial goals. The habit of accumulating savings was strongly ingrained in them. Sadly, that is virtually non-existent now. If you found yourself in a deep level of debt, this is a habit you have to re-learn in order to regain control of your finances.

For sound money management, delayed gratification is a key behaviour to adopt, while instant gratification can set us on the road to serious financial problems. Worse yet is “advance gratification”, when we spend money before we have earned it. Seeking instant enjoyment is not as bad. It just means that we cannot keep cash and spend it as soon as we have it in our hands.

Today, with the massive use of credit cards to pay for high lifestyles, we are in danger of being buried under consumer debt. This is a growing problem which is being seen particularly among the young.

In the past, a person who had no savings was seen as someone with poor money management skills. Now, it is quite common for people in their 20s and 30s to already be in debt to the tune of RM30,000 to RM50,000. Addressing this problem requires a change in mindsets.

Not so long ago, a person entering the job market would use the bus or get a second-hand motorcycle for about RM2,000 to RM3,000. Purchasing a car would be delayed until after about five years of work. Even then, it would probably be a used car costing between RM10,000 and RM12,000.

Today, many young people expect to drive a car before they work, usually looking to their parents for financing. For better money management, this expectation should be replaced by the habit of delayed gratification. If the young learn to save towards the car they want to drive, they can avoid building up a heavy burden of debt. Taking the LRT or commuter train can be among the options.

Growing materialism

The easy availability of consumer credit can contribute to debt accumulation becoming a larger problem for the economy, as is seen in debt-driven societies like the United States and some European countries. The Malaysian authorities can avoid the mistakes of those countries by taking further action to tighten lending rules.

Personal debt management problems are closely related to another trend in society today growing materialism. The idea that happiness depends on the number of material possessions we have appears to be stronger as time goes by.

More than ever, we now need to rediscover the value of non-material interests such as watching the sunset, jungle trekking or volunteering our time in order to find happiness and fulfilment in our lives. We need to find a balance between material wealth and life-enriching experiences that are not measured in monetary terms but build our self-esteem.

For most of us, the amount of money available is limited. In fact, there is never enough for anyone. If we change the way we look at ourselves, many of the problems associated with excessive spending will be resolved.

Instead of dining out at a fancy restaurant, we can have a fulfilling meal at home with our families and enjoy the warmth of their happiness. Instead of spending on more clothes, we can save the money for a good end. Instead of splurging on an expensive holiday, we can find joy and accomplishment in playing a musical instrument.

These are values that adults can inculcate in the young that will pay dividends all their lives. Perhaps the current debt crisis is a reminder to pay attention to the lifestyle choices we unwittingly teach the young.

MONEY & YOU By YAP MING HUI -Yap Ming Hui ( is an independent financial advisor. He is the managing director of Whitman Independent Advisors

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