3 Money Lessons Singaporeans Can Learn From People Overseas

money lessons singaporeans overseas

Joanne Poh



Study hard or else you’ll become a road sweeper.” That’s the first money lesson many Singaporean kids receive. For better or for worse, this little childhood advisory has shaped the way many Singaporeans think about money and their careers later on in life. This fear of failure, aversion to doing menial jobs and faith in educational qualifications has become a bit of a Singapore hallmark.

One of the things that strikes me most when I’m abroad is how you get to observe vastly different attitudes to money which are hard to come by in Singapore. Sure, you can’t generalise an entire group based on the attitudes of a small sample size. But you can sure as hell draw inspiration from the people you meet elsewhere if this is inspiration you can’t find back home.

1. You don’t need that much money to be happy (Hawaii)

Many of the young people in Hawaii live lives that Singaporeans might disapprovingly dismiss as being “hippie”. Even in Honolulu, the biggest city on the Hawaiian islands, mind-blowing scenery is never more than a few minutes’ drive away. Children grow up surfing and hiking, rather than sitting in tuition classes or tagging along on trips to the mall. So maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised when so many of the Hawaii natives I met declared with encouraging certainty that you don’t need a lot of money to be happy. This is exactly the opposite of what I always hear people say Singapore: that you can only happy if you are rich

In fact, despite Hawaii being a notoriously expensive state due to the fact that everything has to be imported from mainland USA, in my time there I spent less on food and entertainment that I would if I had gone out every day in Singapore.

Most young people had no qualms about packing a few cans of beer from the supermarket and some taco chips and taking them on a hike up the side of a volcano, and there was a real stigma surrounding materialism in general. We might not have beautiful seas or verdant volcanic craters, but we do have great rooftop views and tropical jungles. Maybe it’s time to follow suit and look for ways to be happy without spending money, too.

2. Cook it yourself (Italy)

The main thing Singaporeans abroad miss about the country is the food, but ironically most of us don’t really have a culture of cooking at home. A study conducted less than a year ago revealed that most Singaporeans rate their cooking skills as “limited” or “disastrous”. As a result, eating out is on the rise, with the average household spending $267 a month on restaurants, cafes and pubs—note that this figure does not include hawker centre meals.
In Italy, a country which has been mired in recession since forever and where the current unemployment rate is a whopping 13.4%, all the people I met seemed to eat surprisingly well, even if they weren’t exactly raking in big bucks. And that’s because virtually everyone was able to cook.
Whether they’re professionals, business owners, retirees, young, old, male or female, virtually every single Italian I know can make meals that would make Pastamania bury their heads in shame. I’ve never eaten so well in my life than I have in Italy and—surprise, surprise—my monthly spending on food and entertainment is much lower there than it is in Singapore.

3. Showing off your wealth is not cool (Germany)

One of the theories as to why Singaporeans fare so poorly in happiness polls is that one’s perception of their own wealth relative to others can deal a huge blow. This means that if you perceive everyone is doing better than you, you feel worse. So those Ferraris you see on the streets and the billionaires parking their wealth in Singaporean real estate might actually be having a negative effect on people’s sense of wellbeing.

Showing off one’s wealth isn’t merely limited to the super rich, though. It’s not rare to come across people who casually brag about their bonus or accidentally mention how much they paid for their new condo. Perhaps Singaporeans could learn from the super rich in Germany, who according to this report are so anxious to conceal their wealth they seem almost ashamed of it.

A German friend once recounted to me the story of how she went to a private school as a child. One day, a bunch of her little friends were bragging about their expensive summer vacations when she got sick of it and interrupted the conversation with, “Why don’t we talk about something else now?” and proceeded to change the subject.

The result: she was praised by the teacher as an example to the rest of the class.

Somehow, I find it hard to imagine something like that happening in a Singaporean classroom.

What other money lessons have you learnt from your travels? Let us know in the comments!

Keep updated with all the news!


Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.