Increase birth rate? Dollars & cents and so much more

The latest Budget 2016 has included a new enhancement to the Marriage and Parenthood package.

The First Step Grant of $3000 will be deposited upfront into the CDA accounts of all newborn babies born from 24 March 2016.

Finance Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat kicked off the social portion of his maiden Budget speech in Parliament, describing Singapore as a “great place to raise a family”.

I have to acknowledge that the measures rolled out by the government over the past 15 years has been significant.

With 6 kids, every Budget became interesting to watch, as we wondered what new measures would be rolled out in a bid to encourage more couples to start a family.

Photo credit: Straits Times online

Over the years, the schemes that have been administered have helped families, such as the CDA co-savings scheme, more maternity and paternity leave, the Proximity housing grant, more childcare centres and tax incentives for working mothers (although this last incentive seems to be dulled by the recent cap on personal income tax), just to name a few.

So why has there not been any resounding success in raising Singapore’s birth rate?

Perhaps it’s time to address the intangibles.

Having been a part-time financial adviser for 10 years, I worked with many couples and singles addressing issues such as family budgeting, retirement savings, and leaving legacies for future generations.

We often discuss the topic of having children and they are curious and marvel at how the hubs and I can manage to raise so many kids in Singapore. I tell them that we do it by eschewing all conventional methods.

Some even joke that the measure of wealth is no more by the 5 ‘C’s, but by how many Cs you can afford to have – yes, children.

For many couples, it is not that they do not want children, but the top 2 reasons I hear over and over again as to why they are hesitant to have kids or would stop at 1 or 2 are always the same.

The first is the financial burden, and the other is the stressful environment the children have to grow up in.

Right from the O&G medical expenses, hefty pre-school fees, tuition, enrichment classes, all the way to university fees, the figures are mind-boggling.

Besides the already daunting financial obligations, people share with me that the picture of raising children in today’s society does not seem appealing at all.

They look at their siblings, friends or neighbours and witness how their lives have transformed into a mad rush.

From hectic weekdays trying to juggle work, school and logistics, to even busier weekends ferrying their kids from one class to another. Week nights are not spared either, with parents having to rush home to coach their children in spelling or upcoming tests. Everyone seems to be sucked into a spiralling pressure cooker.

The other big issue which impacts a woman’s decision to have more kids is the dilemma of having to choose between work and caring for her children.

It’s time mothers have real options.

You want to work full time? Plenty of jobs available.

You want to stay-at-home? We will support you.

You want to work part-time? Of course.

You want your young kids to be close to you at work? Why not?

You want time off to care for your sick children and to be there for all their important events? We totally understand.

We want a career landscape where we are able to find a good balance between work and family.

The way families are living their days is testimony to what other young couples would want to aspire to.

To see families enjoying their lives together, actually being happy, is the best advertisement to encourage young couples to start a family.

The day that Singapore is truly a great place to raise a family, will be the day you see birth rates increasing.

Because the ones who want to have kids will have them anyway, and those who are hesitant will not be swayed by dollars and cents.

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

Tips for saving money (from a Mum of 6)

Recently I was featured in the Chinese language newspaper about ways a family can save money. For those who read it, here’s a disclaimer. This is not a direct translation because some of the things the journalist wrote were slightly miscommunicated, although the article was generally accurate (to be expected, with a potato speaking to a ‘bao’). So here’s sharing 6 tips on how we save.

1) Toys

They get 3 presents from us a year – Birthday, Christmas and Children’s day. I don’t give them extra pocket money to save for toys. I find that method doesn’t teach them very much. I have come up with a better strategy to teach them financial literacy. Their pocket money is just enough to buy food in school (P1/2: $1, P3/4: $1.50, P5/6: $2). Besides that they are allowed to keep $200 per year from their hong bao money (the rest goes into their bank account) and if they finish it up they have to wait for the next Chinese New Year. I give them this lump sum to practice budgeting and hopefully inculcate good spending habits in them from young. (Rubbing my hands in glee awaiting the day I get some ROI… although I have been told “don’t bet on it!”)

Before I started this system, they were constantly whining for a small toy here, a small knick knack there, and those seemingly insignificant amounts added up to a lot. Now they get 3 gifts and that’s it. Oh, and ad hoc presents if either the hubs or I go on holiday without them. And of course, not forgetting the grandparents who spoil them silly (mostly #1).

Not only do I cap their toy expenditure to a fixed budget each year, my goal is to teach them to be responsible with their money. Initially they were overjoyed to get such a huge amount of money at their disposal and they will use it all up within a few months. However, the next year they will realise their folly and be more prudent with their spending. Paradoxically, when you hand over the reins to them, they end up saving most of it after the first year of learning that the cash is not limitless and no, unlike mummy’s wallet, the bills do not replenish themselves magically. I also teach them delayed gratification by getting them to note down the toys they want and to request it from their relatives for their birthdays. Sometimes, by the time their birthday comes around, they have already decided they don’t want the toy anymore. Very simple but effective way to halt the need to buy something every time they go out.

When they were young, I believed in buying good toys such as puzzles and blocks, and these sets can cost quite a fair bit. I would split the cost of the toys with the mummies in their playgroup and we would rotate them every month. Now that I’ve started blogging, we are so fortunate to receive lots of quality toys. A big thank you to our sponsors!

Dresses for CNY and Christmas

2) Clothes

Most of their clothes are hand-me downs from friends and relatives. They are so used to it that they don’t even question it. In fact, it’s loads of fun to get to choose from a whole pile of clothes. Besides, most friends these days have only 1 or 2 kids and their clothes are still very new. Now that the older girls are in their teens and have started to buy their own clothes, the younger ones are more than happy to receive their clothes once they outgrow them as their older siblings are more ‘fashionable’.

When we go on vacation and need winter clothes, we borrow from friends and relatives. They are quite happy to lend us as their kids have probably outgrown them. I find it not worth buying to be worn only once or twice, plus finding storage for bulky winter clothing is going to be a problem too.

If I need to buy new clothes for example for Chinese New Year, I shop on the internet and buy during the Black Friday sale which happens at the end of November. The discounts are massive, around 50-80% off. I got 2 of the above dresses from Carters during last year’s black friday sale, and they cost around $10 – $20 each. I usually share shipping with 1 or 2 friends to reach the cap of S$400 (no GST charged) as shipping gets cheaper the more you buy.

3) Activities

As the hubs works from home, and the kids hardly have any tuition or enrichment classes, we go for activities during the weekdays where admission charges are cheaper. Places such as science centre/sentosa, indoor playgrounds, cinemas, even buffets are all cheaper during the weekdays. Multiply that by 8 and it becomes substantial. Besides, I really dislike crowds so we like to stay home during the weekends. 

For holidays we like to travel during off-peak season as the air fares are lower, such as the one week break in October designated for PSLE marking, much to the chagrin of their teachers as the year-end exams begin on the Monday back in school. There was one year when #3’s teacher decided to hold extra classes during that week and #3 did not turn up. She called me on Sunday to enquire and I told her we just arrived back at the airport and she was dumbfounded. Before you balk at the idea, I have found out that their results doesn’t get affected much by a vacation before the exams. Besides, October is a great time to travel weather-wise.

4) Buy in bulk

The journalist was asking me to share some marketing tips, and the best times to spend on daily necessities in a cost-saving manner. (Maybe people think a mummy with 6 kids should have all these worked out. Well I don’t, so if you do know, please share with me.)

What we do is to buy our fish and meats directly from the wholesaler as you can imagine the amount of food our household consumes in a week. Not counting all the additional ‘random kids’ as my friends like to call the other children who turn up at our house regularly. There was this really cute boy (our neighbour) who declared to me yesterday, “I can stay in your house the whole day. What’s for lunch?”

5) Tuition

One of the big on-going expenses of Singapore parents with school-going children is tuition. Some parents start kids off with tuition from as early as Primary 1, and some go to the ridiculous extent of having several tutors for every subject when they are in P6 (group, individual, local tutor, native Chinese tutor).

For us, I only give them tuition as a last resort, mainly in the P6 year to plug the gaps. Sometimes, in P4 or P5 they request for tuition but I tell them having tuition is a luxury as it costs a lot of money. I tell them to put more effort to figure it out themselves or to ask their teachers for extra help. Most teachers are willing to give them extra help after school, and #1’s teacher even opened her home to give them extra lessons before the ‘O’ levels. I encourage them to ask their friends for help on subjects they are weak at, and to return the favour in subjects they are strong in. When I finally give them tuition in P6 or in Sec 4 they will cherish the extra help from the tutor.

There was once when #1’s tutor texted us 5 minutes before tuition to cancel and #1 was already seated at the table with her books open. She exclaimed, “Huh! How come?” Her godma was so amused and said that this was the first time she saw a child disappointed in not having tuition instead of jumping for joy. I choose my tutors very carefully and get them to teach in a way which the child learns best. I will not waste my money and my child’s time on tutors who do not produce results. I will also communicate with their tutors regularly to see how we can best address the needs of the child. That was how we managed to get #3 from failing her subjects to 2nd position in class.

#1 asked for Math tuition in Sec 2 but I refused to give her, simply because I wanted her to learn resourcefulness and not take the easy way out and rely on someone to spoon feed her. In the end, by Sec 4, she managed to work her way up to an A grade. So proud of her. In most primary schools, if they fall below a certain grade for their exams, the school provides remedial lessons. Some parents dread to see that white piece of paper which they have to acknowledge, but I’m more than happy to allow them to attend. Free tuition! Why not?

After having 3 kids go through the PSLE, I realise that for #1 and #2, it was fine for them to start tuition in P6 and still manage straight As, but for #3 who was much weaker and who had several inexperienced teachers over the years, I should have started her in P5. For the next 3 kids, I will monitor them more closely to see if they need to start tuition in P5. However, I refuse to make tuition a part of their lives because I have seen how many of their friends dread tuition and feign illness to skip it. Some of their other friends have the mentality that they don’t need to concentrate in class because they can always rely on their tutors. Ends up, their parents are paying unnecessarily for tuition instead of utilising tuition judiciously to plug the gaps.

6) Part-time jobs

I get them to work from the time they turn 14. Nope, contrary to popular believe, it’s not child labour. It is perfectly legal to work part-time from 13 years old (I told them I will kindly give them 12 months of grace period). People ask me where can 14-year olds work? I am careful about where they work as they are still young, so it is either in friends/relative’s companies doing things like waitressing or simple clerical work, or to give tuition to friends’ children.

Similarly, when they are in secondary school, I give them enough money to buy food in school (Sec 1/2: $2.50 a day, Sec 3/4: $3 a day) and they are still allowed to keep the $200 a year from their hong bao money. By the time they are in Secondary school, $200 is not enough to last them a year. Thus, the money that they earn during the June and December holidays will go towards their expenses on their outings with their friends and to pay for their shopping.

I firmly believe in the value of paid work, especially with this generation of entitled kids. This is to teach them the value of money and that it is easy to spend $50 on a pair of jeans but not easy to earn that $50. And the best part for mummy is that henceforth, they are responsible for earning their own keep. 2 down, 4 to go!

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

School Stories #2: My son the loanshark

Last week, I got a call from #5’s teacher. Again. This time, it was not for fighting nor for disturbing his classmates. He was being an ah long in school. Apparently, he had lent his classmate 20 cents. The boy returned him $2 the next day and #5 told him, “You give me $2, I’m not giving you change”, and he promptly pocketed the money. The boy related the incident to his mum who called up their form teacher. His teacher told him to return the $1.80 the next day, and that even loansharks don’t charge such exorbitant interest.

The hubs and I talked to him about it but as usual, he clammed up and refused to tell us why he did it. The only thing I could think of to explain his actions was a discussion I had with the girls about CCAs in secondary school. The younger ones were asking what “Entrepreneur club” was all about and I explained something about entrepreneurship being “You buy some items from someone who makes them and you sell it at a higher price to others”. His eyes opened wide and he said firmly, “I’m going to be a businessman like my ah gong”. Perhaps he thought he could ‘charge’ his friend a higher price. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt this time. Hopefully, he really wasn’t intentionally trying to cheat his friend.
We explained to him that we don’t make money from friends and that he was to give or receive the exact amount if he borrowed or lent money from his friends. I decided that this simple explanation would suffice for now so that there was no room for misinterpretation. And as a punishment, the hubs made him return his friend the full $2 so that he would feel the pinch. Ah well, I would never really know what he was thinking. All I know is that with this boy, I have to be constantly on my toes.

PSLE results: Good or bad, what do you say?
6 tips to choose a secondary school that is right for your child
My teen in a neighbourhood school
PSC Scholarship? Wow
What the PSLE is really aboutWho is behind MOE

PSLE results: A test of the parents more than the child

ECHA – The mother of all awards

School Stories:

#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

#11 – How #2 topped her level in English
#12 – DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 – Tuition – First line of attack?
#14 – Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 – First day mix up!
#16 – The day I forgot to pick my son from school
#17 – No more T-score. Now what?
#18 – Tackling the new school year
#19 – She did it, without tuition.
#20 – So who’s smarter?
#21 – Why I do not coach my kids anymore.

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

How to use your children’s hong bao money to teach them financial literacy

When the kids were younger and we took them out, they would invariable ask to buy something. I would have 5 incessant pleas of “Mom, can I buy this… please?” If I said no, they would take another item and say “What about this? Please?” It drove me nuts. And I would have to make a decision to allow the purchase or not. Sometimes just to get them out of my hair so I could shop properly, I would allow them to buy the toys if they were not too expensive. Or if some days they kept badgering me until I lost my patience, it was “All cannot buy!”

So I started thinking about this issue seriously. What did I want them to learn about money? I wanted to teach them to make the decisions themselves, to decide if the item was necessary and if it was value for money. I also wanted to teach them to spend within their means, and to learn values like thrift and charity. And I definitely wanted them to know that money didn’t grow on trees, which I concluded when I was young, as my parents bought me everything I asked for.

I was a financial consultant for a decade, and I saw too many adults not having the proper financial skills needed in life. It did not matter if they were earning $2,000 or $20,000. They could be making the same mistakes and I realised that it was not only how much you earned but what you did with your money that mattered.

I formulated a plan. I realised that giving them a little extra in pocket money and teaching them to save to buy something did teach them delayed gratification, but not much else. So I didn’t use their pocket money as a teaching tool. I gave them $1 per day for recess starting from Primary 1, with an increment of $0.50 every 2 years. That was to cover their food in school. For all other purchases, I allowed them to keep a small portion of the money collected during Chinese new year, which they were free to use as they pleased for the rest of the year. 

$200 to last them a year

This program commences the year they enter Primary 1. For me, I need to standardise everything so that it’s fair and easy for me to remember. However, based on your own family’s needs, you can start the child at an earlier or later age as you deem appropriate. Generally, kids from 0-4 are contented with hand-me-downs and creating fun out of simple or recycled objects. It is around the age of 4 onwards where they start to ask for particular toys as seen on TV or something their friends have. So at that age, I started to discuss and teach them simple concepts such as what are needs and wants and how much toys cost in relation to something else. For example, I told #5 that a box of Lego ninjago can buy us 20 packets of chicken rice, and his eyes widened in surprise. When they reached 6, that’s when I started to give them a lump sum from their hong bao money to allow them the opportunity to learn the financial lessons themselves.

This is how I derived the figure – I roughly estimated what I was currently spending on each child in 1 year on non-necessities like toys, watches, fancy stationary etc. I rounded it down, and was comfortable with a figure of $200 per child per year to spend as they like. The rest of the money went into their bank account, which is earmarked for their tertiary education. (Another option is to start them off on a smaller amount for the first couple of years, say $100, before increasing it as they get older).

The first time #3 had her money, she was overjoyed and spent it freely. She bought all sorts of cute stationary from her school bookshop, toys when we went to the malls, and even knick-knacks for her friends. I didn’t chastise her as I wanted her to learn the lessons on her own. Within a few short months, she was shocked to find that her wallet was empty. She came to me and told me tearfully that she was ‘wallet-krupt’. I didn’t quite understand, until the older girls told me that it’s not her bank account that was depleted, but her wallet. She watched in misery for the rest of the year as the others had money to spend. It also taught them generosity as there were occasions when the others had money to buy something and she didn’t, and they bought it for her, knowing that she had fallen on ‘tough times’. The favour would be repaid the following year when her finances were better. All these situations mimic real life, and they are teaching moments which can be used to reinforce the things they are doing right and to teach them other options if they are not quite on the right track. I figured that it was better for them to make the mistakes when they are young, than to learn the hard way when they are older and the amounts are more substantial.

So for #3, I instructed her to gather all the things she bought that year, and she was puzzled as to where the money went as there was not much to show for it. She realised that $2 here and $5 there amounted to a lot of money, and she regretted buying some of the items which she didn’t even want anymore. The next year, she was much more prudent with her buys and by the end of the year, she still had a good portion of the money left.

As for the rest, #1 is very meticulous and she notes down every little purchase and carefully budgets her money to ensure it lasts her the year. #2 never liked shopping and saved almost all of her money. #4 was very careful with her buys from the get-go as she saw what happened to #3. Last year was the first time #5 had his money and he readily spent it all on Lego and didn’t mind that the rest of the year he had no money left as he spent the year happily playing with what he had bought. Let’s see if his spending pattern changes over the years. It was also really interesting to see how their characters were reflected in their spending habits.

When they reached Primary 5, I gave each of them a little notebook to record their purchases. They will write down the item, how much they have to begin with, how much the item costs, and their balance. This allows them to look back after a year to see if the purchases were worth it or not. If they were still using the items and it was serving them well, that’s good as they got a lot of mileage out of it. They will put a tick under the ‘Note’ if it was a wise buy and a cross if it was not a good buy. It can then be seen at a glance if a majority of their purchases were good or not, and they can try to improve on that the next year. They also naturally realised that a lot of stuff they bought were useless or bought on the spur of the moment. This leads them to consider more carefully in future before they bought something.

Cashbook to record their purchases

The only times they get presents are during their birthdays and Christmas. During the year, if they want something which would take up a sizeable chunk of their money, they will note it down, and if some months later they still want that item, they will request it for Christmas, either from us, their grandparents, or their aunts and uncles. That teaches them delayed gratification and also helped cut down a lot of unnecessary spur of the moment “I really want” type of purchase, only to regret it later.

Sane tip: The best part of my program? No more “Mom, pleassse, just this 1 thing?” I can now shop in peace while they are busy figuring if they should buy an item, or comparing prices, or sharing info with each other about where to get cheaper and nicer items which they were looking for. And instead of thinking that “Mom is mean” when I refuse to buy them something, they are empowered to make a wise decision. They have also learnt the very important skill of budgeting and spending within their means. Giving to charity has also taken on more significance to them, as it is given out of their own pocket.

Save tip: I have saved quite a lot of money, because now, everything comes out of their $200, even concert tickets! They used to bug me to take them to Hi 5Disney on ice, and High School Musical when they were younger. A concert outing could easily set me back $500, not only for tickets for everyone, but they also wanted those silly wand sticks or ice balls which cost more than $10 each! After they turned 6 and had to spend their own money, they bought it once, forking out $68 each. After the show, I asked them if it was worth their money. They replied that it was not bad, but that I had taken them to enough concerts over the years and that they wouldn’t go the next year (that was what I had been trying to tell them all along!) And of course, they did not part with their money to buy any of the overpriced memorabilia after the concert. The good thing is that you can still take them to any concerts or events which you feel you want them to be exposed to, and believe me, the kids will be so grateful to you for paying for it 🙂

Here are more tips on how to keep their birthday parties within $100 while equipping them with financial skills like planning and budgeting.

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

My eldest turns 15!


How time flies. In the blink of an eye, my dear little baby is now 15! She spent the day shopping with her best friend, then came back for tea. With so many kids, how do I handle their birthdays? 

Initially, their parties were ‘normal’. But as we were living in a condo, they got invited to many neighbours’ kid’s parties. And some had the works.. face painting, balloon sculpture, jumping castle, magician. Of course kids being kids, when their birthday came, they would ask if they could have “a princess jumping castle just like so-and-so”. And as parents, we would want to make them happy on this special day once a year, so we conceded. Over the years, the parties grew to become $1000 affairs, what with the entertainment, catered food, and obligatory party bags. Not to mention all the planning and organising that came along with it. And I had to do it a few times a year!

We were seriously party drained, and the worst part was, after every big party where at least 30 kids were invited, when I asked them if they enjoyed themselves, someone would be upset. Because “so-and-so hit the piñata first when it was supposed to be me”, or “so-and-so played with the other friend the whole time and ignored me”, etc, etc. I realised then that a huge party with lots of money spent and lots of friends invited did not equate to a happy birthday child. 

So I decided that all this had to stop, and I re-evaluated what a birthday party should be. I also realised that when we did not set a budget for them, they didn’t know any better and would request for things which we had to refuse and they would be upset. For example, they would ask for a ‘3D Winx club cake’ which they saw at another friend’s party. Such a cake would cost upwards of $200. Furthermore, as we had so many kids, it was hard to be fair, and there would be constant unhappiness when I had to say no to a particular thing they wanted and they would say “so unfair, how come the other sibling could have such and such a thing”.  

My oldest and my youngest

I scaled down all their parties, and gave them ample notice that once they reached P1, there would be no more big parties and I would instead give each child $100 on their birthdays to do as they pleased. They could invite their friends over in the day, and then we would have a family dinner or BBQ in the evening. They would also be in charge of organising their birthday parties by themselves. They got really excited and started listing down the things they wanted and asked me for the cost of each. 

For the birthday cake, when I told them “3D cake, $250” they were stunned. They asked how much a normal cake was. I told them $30. They discussed better ways of getting a cheaper cake. They ended up buying pre-mix from the supermarket and baked for each other on their birthdays. Subsequently, they realised that if they sweetly requested their aunt to bake them a cake, it would be free! And they loved their aunt’s cakes.

As for entertainment, they made up games for their friends to play. They did Amazing race, played pool games in the swimming pool, and planned other games, all of which cost them nothing. And in fact, they had so much more fun than before!

Instead of catered food, they decided they would just order MacDonald’s delivery. After checking the prices on the website, they realised it amounted to a huge chunk of their $100. They asked me how else could they get cheaper fries, nuggets and pizza. I suggested the supermarket. They were delighted to see that they could get it for a fraction of the price there and just cook it themselves. 

The best part was that after paying for the food, the free entertainment and the free cake, they still had money left over which they could use to buy themselves a birthday present. They were overjoyed.. and so was I.

As they grew older, their friendships also changed. #1 now prefers to spend the day with just 1 or 2 good friends, and they would go bowling, have a simple meal, and spend the rest of the money on some trinkets for herself and her friends.

the awesomest sticky date pudding

Her godma baked her signature sticky date pudding – moist and full bodied. Actually, I really missed eating it so I requested her to bake it for #1’s birthday. And now they all love it too!

#1 and her godma

Sane tip: Organising their parties used to be so tiring, but now that I outsource it to them, not only does it relieve me of the unnecessary stress, but it has taught them so much. The value of money, budgeting, and planning and organising skills. And most of all, that happiness does not come from ‘the bigger, the better’, but from being with a few close friends and your family.

Save tip: I managed to scale their parties down from $1000 per party to $100.