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The road less travelled towards saving a fortune

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” speaks of a narrator who came to a crossroads while travelling in the autumn woods.

There were two roads to choose from: one that looked frequently travelled, and the other that was grassy, and “wanted wear.”

Taking the road less travelled, the narrator reflectively suggests, enriched his life.

In some ways, I’ve also taken the road less travelled. I had a great job at a high school in Canada, but seeking adventure and exotic travel, I moved to Singapore in 2003.

I don’t believe that most expatriates living in Singapore save much money. There’s a temptation over here to live large.

A previous post discussed the outrageous costs of owning a car in the Lion City, and if you’re rubbing shoulders with most expatriate business-folk, you’ll spend a small fortune on expensive drinks, and restaurant prices that could make your eyes water.

But that’s not the road less travelled. It’s the road worn thin by expatriates who live like Sultans in countries where salaries are high, and taxes are comparably non-existent. Then, when many of them come back to Earth and repatriate, they’re disappointed by how little they have in their coffers.

In a place like Singapore, where Hondas, Toyotas and Volkswagens cost well over $100,000, many road-weary workers don’t see a choice. But those who open their eyes and broaden their horizons can see Singapore as a very cheap place to live.

Public Transport

Forget owning a car if you really want to save money in Singapore.

During non peak hours, a taxi can take you roughly 10 kilometres for $9 Canadian/U.S./Australian. This is a fraction of what you would pay in most first world countries.

Public buses cost roughly $1— less than half of what I pay in Canada, when I travel by bus in Victoria, British Columbia, while visiting my family during the summer.

I rarely see expatriates on public buses. Most of them prefer paying through the nose for the convenience of a car.

Eating Out

Because I love getting visitors in Singapore, let me offer to treat you and three of your friends to dinner at a local hawker stall: a social roof-covered open eatery that’s similar to a North American food court.

Splurging on four plates of duck, fish or chicken with rice and vegetables and four cans of Coca-Cola could cost me the mighty sum of $12 Canadian/U.S./Australian.

The photo you see alongside is a local menu in Singaporean prices. Converting $2.50 in Singaporean dollars amounts to roughly $2 U.S.

 Arguably, it can be cheaper to eat out than to cook, and many of the locals in Singapore do just that. Most community family apartments are built above or close to such hawker centres. They become places to eat breakfast and drink tea before work.

Many people enjoy them during their lunch breaks, and they’re great places for dinner or for socializing with drinks in the evening.

 They’re generally filled with locals, but they’re pleasant, and never cramped. Few expatriates can be found at these establishments. Most of them prefer dining at expensive eateries, where they complain about the painful prices of alcohol.

Too bad for them. A 500ml bottle of beer (which is much larger than the average North American bottle) costs just $4 U.S./Canadian/Australian at a hawker centre, where you can sit, laugh and be served all night.

Fruits and Vegetables

Conveniently located near virtually all hawker centres are “wet markets” where flowers, fish, meats, vegetables and fruits are usually sold. Again, it’s rare to find these establishments frequented by Europeans or North Americans.

Many of those working at wet markets have a very weak command of English. If you were to tell the average expatriate that, they would be surprised.

Isolated in their world of higher cost establishments, they would be shocked to hear how many people in Singapore have difficulty with English, despite it being one of the country’s national languages.

By not purchasing foods at wet markets, many people miss out on a truly colourful Singaporean experience. And if you’re keen to buy locally, the costs of fruits and vegetables can be surprisingly low.

Rambutans,  pictured alongside, are my favourite fruit. This morning, I took this photograph from the wet market near our apartment. These succulent beauties cost 80 Canadian cents a kilogram.

Malaysian bananas, pineapples, mangoes, papayas, seafood and an array of leafy vegetables are sold here for a fraction of the cost you would pay in Canada or the U.S.

Papayas, for instance, that are twice the size of my head, sell for less than $2 Canadian.

Child Care/Housekeeping

Most wealthy Singaporeans and expatriates have Philippine or Indonesian live-in maids who look after the children, cook, and keep their homes looking spotless…for $500 a month.

Before you consider this some form of exploitation, there are a couple of things to consider.

My wife’s former maid lived with her for seven years. From her relatively paltry salary, she was able to purchase the finest home in her local village. When too many of her relatives wanted to live in the house, she bought two other homes for members of her family…in cash.

She has since moved back to the Philippines, and my wife and I stayed with her a few years ago to see it all with our own eyes.

You can see Eliza’s four bedroom home alongside. It’s nestled in the mountains, roughly 10km from the sea. Eliza is on the left, next to her husband, with my sister Sally in the middle, and my wife Pele on the right. In the background, working in the kitchen, you can see Eliza’s mother.

 So can you save money in a city with a reputation for high costs?

If you break from the high-cost establishments frequented by tourists, wealthy Singaporeans and expatriates, you can enjoy plush first world wages, pay fewer taxes, and likely save more than you could in your home country.

What’s more, most expatriate employers in Singapore cover the rental costs of large apartments (ours is 1,700 square feet) with gorgeous swimming pools, tennis courts and exercise facilities.

You can see my parents enjoying our condominium’s pool.

But few expatriates take advantage of the money-saving potential in places like Singapore. They live large and spend more than they would ever dream of spending in their home countries.

When two roads diverge in a yellow wood, most people see just one.

In my next post, I’ll take you to a tropical island nearby. We’ll spend a week on one of world’s most beautiful beaches, eat everything in sight, and spend less than it would cost to fill a motor-home with fuel.



Andrew Hallam

I’m a financial columnist for Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail, as well as for AssetBuilder, a financial service firm based in Texas. I’m also the author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas. My mission is to educate, motivate and inspire people on basic retirement planning and best practices for investing, using evidence-based strategies. I'm happy to comment on your questions.

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10 Responses

  1. Ah, great post Andrew! Great to see some pictures, on a more personal front, how you live "over there"!

    BTW – I love Tiger beer. I buy it now and again here in Ottawa. Goes great with a nice steak on the BBQ 🙂

    • Thanks Mark,

      I'm glad you like the post. I'm a bit late getting back to you because my wife and I just came back from a trip to Thailand. I'll try to put together something interesting for you and the Dividend Mantra on Krabi. I know that both of you like travel stories!

  2. Robberbaron says:

    Great post Andrew!

    Absolutely true in so many contexts. I understand the desire of recent univ grads to live large for a year or two, spending the balance on a vacation blowout before returning to "the real world" back home for the rest of their life. But they miss out on much of what supposedly have come to experience!

    With a little desire many folks can save 30% or more of their gross salary. Whether a maid, a 'backpack English teacher', a qualified teacher, an engineer . . .

    • Thanks Robberbaron,

      It's great when people can find a nice balance between saving and living well. We're all terminally ill, technically speaking, so it's great to live for the moment, while keeping money aside for tomorrow at the same time.

  3. Andrew,

    I must have missed this post before. Terrific article. The road less traveled is often the better one. I am finding that out by engaging in frugal living and investing for my future.

    I share a lot of your views. Besides the hair cut, I too am highly interested in retiring in SE Asia. I've not been there yet, so that is a priority for me at some point in the future. Through endless research, I've come to the conclusion that the Philippines would be the best spot for me. The SRRV visa program is pretty expat-friendly, especially with the new "Smile" option for 35-and-older retirees. The cost of living is extremely low, especially outside of Manila/Makati and along some of the coasts. Beautiful beaches, cheap rent and eats and a friendly English-speaking population seems great. The only downside would be expensive flights back home to see family.

    I was wondering if I could pick your brain on the Philippines? What's your thoughts on it as a retirement option for a little geographical arbitrage? Cebu and some of the beaches seem beautiful. I'm extremely interested in this as an option after I become financially independent around 40 or just after.

    Thanks for the fantastic information on living overseas. I really appreciate all your expat-oriented articles.

  4. Hey Mantra,

    The Philippines is beautiful–and definitely a great option for anyone wanting to retire in style. Many people don't realize that you can get excellent medical services there as well. It's a strange thing to say, but I'll say it anyway because it's the truth: The Philippines has so many wealthy people living there. Obviously, most of the people are poor, but the rich don't compromise one bit. They have access to some of the world's best medical services. And you would have access to that service as well, with the right insurance. Even if you were paying for medical expenses on your own dime, it would be very cheap. If you take a trip there, let me know!

  5. Think Dividends says:

    I miss Singapore! I really enjoyed my time there last summer. Too bad a round trip takes 48hours from Toronto.

  6. One of the best things about Singapore is that it's such a great launching pad to Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. I really like it too!

  7. Paula @ Afford Anyth says:

    What a great post!! I love the photos and your personal touch in this post.

    I remember Singapore fondly — and I definitely remember how cheap the food was and how expensive the drinks were. Needless to say, I ate a lot of local food and avoided alcohol expect the occasional Tiger beer (which is generally how a person SHOULD travel through Asia!)

    • Thanks Paula,

      This was a fun post to put together. You can tell that I went out into the community that day with my camera…with the post in mind.

      My parents are pictured here as well. I took this photo of them in January 2010, when they visited me, shortly after my surgery. Coincidentally, they are coming back tonight. I pick them up at the airport, along with my sister, late this evening. It has been more than a year since I've seen them, so I'm excited.

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