An Epiphany From First Class

First Class

One of the best perks of my job is that I get to pretend to be a rich person.

Well, not all the time of course. Like I definitely did not feel rich these past 2 weeks: Staying late in the office, eating at my desk, slaving over Excel sheets till I started dreaming of VLOOKUP commands, and feeling absolutely miserable.

So I got really happy when I got to take a break from it all to fly First Class to Beijing for a work trip. I sipped a glass of champagne, slid down into the overly spacious fine-grained leather seat, and stared out into the setting sun. “I could get used to this life.” I thought, as the flight attendant poured me another glass of champagne.

Being Rich – Gangnam Style

Fast forward to two days later, I was back in Singapore and pretending to be rich again. This time, I was at the Turf Club, entertaining 20 clients who were rich enough to fly First and Business Class on a regular basis and splurge copious amounts of money betting on horses.

I got talking to one of our guests. She was elegant, Irish, and wore a lovely dress with a tasteful set of pearls. Her husband was a Managing Director in an MNC. I could tell she was actually rich (ie: not one of those executives who gain elite status on their company’s money), because she ordered a Coke instead of alcohol. Classy.

We were watching the horses being led out to the track, when she lamented, “I would love to be rich enough to own one of those horses and not have to work so I could train them every day!”

I stared at her as if Justin Bieber had just crawled out of her nostrils. I thought to myself, “Lady – You get to savor the champagne-filled heaven that is First Class every couple of weeks! And you think that you’re not rich enough???

The Law of Relativity

And then it struck me: Being rich is RELATIVE.

That is, relative to who you compare yourself to. When I was a penniless college student, I used to get jealous of alumni who had real jobs and were earning thousands of dollars a month. Now that I was one of them and wallowing in my Excel-induced state of misery, I found myself getting jealous of people who were earning tens of thousands of dollars a month and flying First Class on a regular basis. But they in turn were feeling jealous of other people whom they thought were richer than them. It was mind-boggling, but it made sense.

The truth is, being rich is just a state of mind.

It really doesn’t matter how much money you make or how big your bank account is. I’m not saying that we should all just be happy in poverty – everyone should strive towards a life where they’re not worrying about making ends meet. But it’s a waste of time and energy to feel jealous of someone else’s (perceived) material fortunes.

Instead, I challenge you to start feeling rich right now. Think about how lucky you are to have higher education when there are millions of people who don’t even make it to high school. Think about how great it feels to have the security of a regular job, three meals a day, and a bed to sleep in while others are struggling to make ends meet.

I know it sounds corny, but we often don’t notice how rich we really are.

First Class

Yesterday, I took my family out to lunch. The restaurant was half-empty, served cheap Chinese food, and there were no leather seats with mahogany trimmings or unlimited quantities of champagne.

But the food was tasty, the company was excellent, and my dad was gleeful as hell because the opposition party had just won the Punggol East by-election. I leaned back, patted my Chinese food-filled tummy, and savored how wonderful life was.

So who needs to pretend to be rich? I don’t. 🙂

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5 Surprising Truths About Investing in Real Estate

Singaporeans are absolutely crazy about property. Whenever I walk into a bookstore, I see shelves upon shelves of real estate investing books with pictures greasy men in business suits on the cover, wearing a big smile and screaming “I Got Rich Making Big Money Investing in Real Estate, AND YOU CAN TOO!!”

I hate those books. One day, I’m going to write a book with a naked picture of me on the cover, wearing nothing but a big smile and screaming “I Published a Book With A Picture of Me In a Birthday Suit, AND YOU CAN TOO!!” And I’m going to get the bookstores to stack ‘em right next to those damn real estate books.

I get really puzzled whenever I talk to someone my age about investing, and hear that they would rather “just invest in property”. Those greasy men in business suits can’t be that convincing, can they?

I’m probably going to piss off every single real estate agent in the world by writing this, but I can think of 5 reasons why real estate isn’t the best investment for young people:

1. Your first house isn’t an investment

Most people who buy a house more expensive than they can afford justify it by claiming that it’s an “investment”. Let’s be clear here – your first house is a place to live. It is NOT an investment. Even if your house rises in value along with every other house in the country, whatever you gained from selling your house would just go right back into purchasing another place to live in.

2. Property isn’t necessarily safer than the stock market

Most people think that property is “safer” that the stock market. But really, if you’re lumping ALL your savings into one house, how diversified is your investment portfolio, really? Compare that to investing in the Straits Times Index (STI), which immediately diversifies your investment into 30 stocks, each backed by a real, physical, blue-chip company.

By the way, you can lose money in real estate. Anyone remember 2008?

3. Property may not give you a better return than stocks

An SGX-led study showed that if you invested in Singapore property in 2001 and held it until 2010, you’d be worse off than if you had simply invested that same amount in the STI. Globally, stocks may or may not outpace real estate in any given year, but stocks have historically performed better than real estate over the long-term.

A New York Times article also described how real estate in the US has only barely managed to keep up with inflation, while stocks have risen comfortably above inflation for the past 200 years. As Yale economist Robert Shiller puts it, “from 1890 through 1990, the return of real estate was just about zero after inflation.”

4. Costs will destroy a large chunk of your returns

If someone bought a house for $250,000 and sold it 5 years later for $400,000, most people would think, “Great! I made $150,000!” But they failed to account for all the associated costs that go along with it: Taxes, agent fees, commissions, insurance, maintenance, stamp duties, renovation costs, furnishing, etc, which would add hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to your monthly bill.

Let’s not forget the interest you’ll have to pay on the housing loan you took out, which is easily in the ballpark of tens of thousands of dollars. For Singaporeans, if you use your CPF to purchase a house, you’d have to pay back the amount you “borrowed” from CPF, PLUS INTEREST (It stands at 2.6% today, but it’ll rise once interest rates go up. I totally see the rationale of this policy from the government’s perspective, but am I the only one who thinks this is a crappy deal from an investing standpoint?).

The costs I pay for investing in a low-cost ETF? A commission of $25, and an annual expense ratio of 0.3% (For every $10,000 invested, that’s like thirty bucks).

5. Mortgages screw with your psyche

“Hey, let’s use other people’s money to get rich!”… is what most people would tell themselves before taking on a huge-ass mortgage.

Dude, a mortgage isn’t something to scoff at. It’s as full-fledged and serious a commitment as… marriage. Things change once you’ve got the ever-present threat of a monthly mortgage payment hanging over your head. You start to see things differently. Mortgages cause people to become way more risk-averse, and less likely to do things like finding a better job, starting their own business, and investing, even though those options may help them to become financially better off.

Think of it as a Big Buy – Not an investment

I’m not saying that real estate is a bad investment. You can make money from it if you already have 1) a house to live in, 2) lots of spare cash, and 3) a strong portfolio and are looking to diversify your investments.

But most young people don’t fall into this category. Instead, we should see our first property as a really, really, really large purchase rather than an investment. Think of it as a great way to build equity and start a family. But please don’t delude yourself into thinking that you’re going to get rich from it. If you’re just starting out, you’d be better off focusing on building a sensible portfolio of stocks and bonds.

Agree/disagree? Leave a comment or send me an email at cheerfulegg [at] gmail [dot] com. I’d love to hear from you, especially if you’re interested in publishing my birthday suited book cover.