Buying less things, financial independence and happiness

Nowadays, I find myself wanting less.

I want to buy less stuff, do less projects, set less goals.

In the meantime I want more meaning, more connection, more joy.

More life.

And what I have found is, wanting less makes me happy. Much happier than when I was wanting more.

The anguish of more; the happiness of less

Just a few days ago I was watching the documentary Minimalism.

It’s a film that suggests minimalism as an antidote – or THE antidote – to the havoc that rampant consumerism has wrecked on our lives, and the environmental impact it has on earth, our only home.

Rampant consumerism is us going crazy buying things that advertisers have promised can make us happier, skinnier, prettier, smarter, more successful. And at a faster and faster rate. (The promises are false by the way.)

Most of us are not immune to such promises – that includes you and me both.

And what is minimalism?

“Today’s problem seems to be the meaning we assign to our stuff: we tend to give too much meaning to our things, often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth, and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves. Want to own a car or a house? Great, have at it! Want to raise a family and have a career? If these things are important to you, then that’s wonderful. Minimalism simply allows you to make these decisions more consciously, more deliberately.” – The Minimalists

I couldn’t have said it better.

One of the experts interviewed in the Minimalism documentary said this:

“We don’t actually want all these things that we buy – what we really want is to feel whole and content.”

And might I add, happy.

With that we come to the root of the problem: happiness, or the lack of it.

Since we are not happy, we go out into the world trying to find happiness in a new iPhone or a new branded bag or a pair of limited edition sneakers or a new house.

Don’t we all know people who have everything they want and are still not happy?

Having a big goal like buying a new house gives us the illusion that we are okay – as long as we don’t get there. During the chase we are happy (and motivated) enough, but the moment we make enough to own that new house, the bubble bursts. We realize it isn’t what we are looking for after all. Emptiness returns. We create a new goal to chase after.

Perhaps we will finally find happiness there?

(Hint: we won’t.)

If a pill were invented right now that could give us the happiness and sense of purpose and meaning that we are all universally looking for, I’d like to hedge a bet that we would buy far fewer things.

That’s because we never needed those things to be happy or to feel fulfilled in the first place. It’s like eating a truckload of ice cream after getting dumped. You don’t actually want to eat it – because it makes you fat – but it helps.

That’s the problem – it does make you feel better. Temporarily, at least.

Same with buying things.

Financial independence

If money can’t buy happiness, what can it buy?

I didn’t buy new clothes for Chinese New Year this year. I figured that it’s not necessary to buy new clothes just for the sake of buying new clothes. The money I saved? It goes to my Financial Independence Fund.

What’s my Financial Independence Fund? It’s my savings. Every cent I earn – minus my essential monthly expenses – goes towards my savings. My goal is to reach a point where I have enough money to semi-retire or retire in 5 years’ time.

Yes, my goal is to semi-retire or retire when I am 35 (depending on how well things go). It sounds impossible, laughable even, because we grew up thinking we must work our entire lives – yet it doesn’t have to be that way. I like to think out of the box, and I like to think that there is another more rewarding path through life, and that path is financial independence.

To reach financial independence is to have enough money stashed away so you no longer have to work for a living (or you only have to work just a little – maybe once a week, or once a month – in order to sustain your lifestyle). Here’s a good beginner article about the idea of financial independence, if you are interested in finding out more.

So how do we get there? The first step is to stop buying so many damn things and start saving the money we would have used to buy those things.

F*ck you money

I’m not totally against buying things, as long as you are buying things you need or that add to your life. But you should not be spending so much money that you don’t have F*ck You Money in your bank.

What’s that?

Imagine if you have $50,000 in your bank, or $20,000, or even $10,000. One day you finally realize that you are working for a boss who doesn’t care about your welfare, or in a corporation where you are not valued as an employee. With money in your bank, you have the freedom to quit your job without worrying about being homeless. That’s called F*ck You Money.

If you don’t have F*ck You Money in your bank, you are essentially a slave, trapped in a job that you hate just because it pays the bills (that you yourself chalked up in the first place).

To have F*ck You Money in your bank, you save. There is no magic formula to it. If you think that giving up your expensive purchases or your high-flying lifestyle will cause your standard of living (or your enjoyment of life in general) to drop, then what about the sheer misery of having to work in a shitty job just because you don’t have any savings?

You might not have control over your terrible boss, but you have 100% control over your savings.

After saving for the last year, I have enough F*ck You Money to never get a full-time job ever again. Even if my freelance photography career tanks (hopefully it won’t), I have enough savings to tide me through until my next move, whatever that might be.

I wouldn’t have said the same thing two years ago. What has changed is that I have learned to save.

So… it’s simple. Buying less things means spending less. Spending less means having more savings. Having more savings means having more freedom.

A journey

On this blog I write a lot about how to live a better life. Today’s article is no exception. And like every article before this, I strive to live what I write about.

The beautiful thing is that these ideas – like minimalism, or like how buying less things can actually make one happier – really do work. They are not just theories or concepts. All you need to do is test them out in your own life and experience the benefits for yourself.

For me, it is a journey. I was a big consumer just a year ago. If you visit my house now, you will still see a lot of stuff (in the midst of learning how to declutter). What you will not see is how I have stopped buying many things that I would have bought just one year ago. What you also won’t see is the shift in my mindset and the questions I ask myself these days whenever I find myself tempted to buy something.

“Do I really need this?”

“Will I die without this?”

“Does this really add to my life?”

The practice of this philosophy of “less is better” – or minimalism – has greatly benefited me. And it can also be applied to not only personal finance but also to work, relationships, and life in general, because it helps you to sift through what is truly important and what is not.

But a disclaimer – I am still not there yet. There are so many things I haven’t learned about minimalism or how to be a more conscientious or environmentally-conscious consumer, but I am learning and I will keep learning.

I wish you luck and happiness and joy as always, my friends, and if you have any comments or stories to share, please feel free to share them below!

The simple guide to financial happiness

I never thought one day I’d be writing articles about personal finance or money, but here I am. Life is strange like that.

As a kid I was terrible at mathematics. That (and the insults from my fearsome Secondary Four A Maths teacher) made me steer away from anything to do with numbers.

Up until I was 27 (I turn 31 this year) there was never more than a few thousand dollars in my bank. I remember how there was once I hit $4,000 in my savings account, and it felt like I’d reached the pinnacle of my financial achievements.

I’m not very interested in status symbols, but I love food and books and travel and cameras and other hobby-related toys, so much of my money was spent on these stuff, lots and lots of stuff.

Oh, and whenever I’d accumulated about $2,000 in my bank, I’d feel rich enough to think I deserved a holiday. That was when you’d find me in front of the computer booking my next flight out of Singapore.

For much of my life I treated money like it was an afterthought, and spent it “like water”, in the exact words of my mum. It didn’t matter how little or how much money I had at any given time – I simply didn’t give much thought to how I handled or spent it.

I often consoled myself by thinking – I’m a creative and an “artsy” person, so I’m not supposed to be good at the money stuff… right?! People like us simply don’t have the genetic makeup for something as tedious as this – we have more important things to think about. Or so I thought.

I was never more wrong.

Like I said before, last year I had a rude awakening. I had been working very hard and earning money from photography since 2013, but by end 2015 I realized I’d managed to save very little money, having squandered about 90% of the money I had earned.

This threw me into panic mode. I was pissed. I was angry with myself. There was a lot of self-blame and confusion (where did my money go?!). I felt terrible that I’d worked so hard and had almost nothing to show for it – it was almost like I’d worked for nothing.

Suddenly I remembered something. A couple of years ago I’d been forced to see a fortune teller (long story) who had told me, “You have the potential to make a lot of money, but if you don’t know how to save, you are still going to end up poor.”

So when I was panicking about this situation back in end 2015, this little (ominous) statement from the fortune teller kept popping up in my head.

“…if you dont know how to save, you are still going to end up poor.”

My financial awakening

It took me awhile to figure this out: It’s not cool at all to be financially ignorant.

It’s not that I am suddenly a financial whiz or that I am now super rich. These haven’t happened yet, but since last year I have changed the way I think about money and that has made all the difference.

If I kept going the way I was going – spending money mindlessly, not bothering to save, spending on instant gratification rather than planning for my future – no matter how hard I worked, I would end up old and penniless.

This thought was scary enough to force me to start learning everything I could about personal finance.

One of my biggest inspirations has been the personal finance blogger Mr Money Mustache.

His writing overturned a lot of the wrong mindsets I had about money.

Because of his blog I was introduced to the concept of financial freedom, which blew my mind.

I never knew it was possible to retire young.

I never knew it was possible to be frugal and still enjoy life.

I never understood exactly how much advertising and society in general have brainwashed us into becoming such deeply entrenched consumers.

Also, the more I read and learned and studied, the more I figured out what all these rich and financially competent people have in common (and no, it’s not trust funds)…

How to become rich

The only way you can become rich is if you spend much less than you earn. Repeat that to yourself.

The only way you can become rich is if you spend much less than you earn.

It’s true of Warren Buffett, and it’s true of you and me.

Apparently, it doesn’t matter how much you earn. If you are a banker earning $30,000 a month who spends $40,000 every month on your expensive condo rental and on $400 dinners and $1,000 suits and a $2,000 per month car installment, you are going to be not just in debt but poorer than an admin executive who saves half of his $2,800 monthly salary.

Over one year, the banker is going to be $120,000 in debt while the admin executive is going to end the year with $16,800 in savings.

It’s bizarre, isn’t it?

Think of all the famous, supposedly dirt-rich people who splurge on mansions and yachts and private planes and go bankrupt.

And then think of my aunt and uncle who brought up three kids on a combined income of $3,000. And they still have money left over to go for holidays in Taiwan and Bangkok.

Having a high income is TOTALLY IRRELEVANT if you spend more than you earn.

It’s not how much you have, it’s how little you want

There is a brilliant little book titled The Millionaire Next Door.

It’s about how the truly rich often have frugal habits, live in smaller houses, drive cheaper cars (or not at all).

While the ones who are broke or in massive debt often appear to be rich simply because they live in big houses, drive big cars, own more expensive television sets.

It’s a sad facade.

Simple strategies

With regards to money, many of us are on auto-pilot. We inherit our parents’ attitude towards money or are influenced by our friends, or even by the media.

We want people to think we have made it. We spend money without thinking. We lust for condos that we cannot afford. We buy things that we don’t need and end up working so that we can earn more money buying things that we don’t need.

Many of us need to wake up, including myself.

And waking up is not enough. To achieve financial happiness, we must be willing to put in the work (as with any other thing worth striving for).

The following are practical strategies that I learned from my obsessive research on the topic of personal finance in my brave attempt to transform into a Financially Savvy Artsy Person™. I have put into action most of them – I really don’t want to write fluffy articles about things that don’t work in real life – and have benefited greatly.

I’m still learning and I still have a long way to go, but if you ask me, these will give you – as they gave me – a good start.

1. Track your expenditure

This is the number one thing you need to do if you want to overhaul your finances, because if you don’t know what you’re spending on, you won’t know what to cut out of your spending.

I use the excellent app Wally to do this. The idea is to track your expenditure religiously for an entire month so you have an idea of where your money goes. It’s somewhat laborious but crucial if you are serious about getting a grip on your finances.

(It took me maybe five false starts before I eventually managed to track my expenses for an entire month. Yes, the road to financial prudence can be a long and painful one, especially if you are as ill-disciplined and lazy as me.)

Use Wally to track all your cash expenses, and your credit card statement to track your credit card expenses. If you are Singaporean, Seedly is an app that allows you to connect your credit and debit cards – it then automatically tracks all your spending.

TIP: You must capture ALL your spending in order to have an accurate picture of your current financial situation.

2. Cut your spending ruthlessly

Once you know what you’ve been spending on, you can do the cutting down.

This is actually quite fun.

I’m sure you will find a lot of unnecessary expenses in your monthly spending, just as I did.

Subscriptions to online magazines and newspapers, Spotify, a brain training app, an online meditation programme… I cut all of that (except for Netflix, which I can’t seem to let go off, because… The Good Wife is the best TV show ever).

I stopped cabbing and got myself an EZLink card. I stopped buying books, my favorite all-time hobby that sets me back hundreds of dollars a month, a couple of thousand dollars a year. I ate out less, and if I did eat out, I would choose cheaper options. And dozens of other small things, but they add up.

(The underlying principle is: Do we really need all the things we think we need?)

But don’t just cut out the small stuff. I didn’t understand this at first until it was pointed out to me that my real problem lies in my big-ticket purchases – a $800 painting here, a $1,000 foldable bike there, a $3,000 trip overseas (still working on this).

So cut, cut, cut.

3. Start a separate savings account

Segregate your spending money from your savings. They are two completely different things.

For myself, after some research, I decide to start a separate savings account with CIMB. They only have branches and ATMs at two locations in Singapore, so it’s pretty hard for me to withdraw money from the account. That helps 😉

Don’t touch the money in this account. Unless you need the money to save a life.

4. Automate your savings

If you can only remember one thing from this article, it’s this – always save before you spend.

I’m a freelancer so my income can be in flux, so this is my little system: In my checking account, at the beginning of every month, I maintain a balance of about 3 months’ expenditure. Thereafter, every time I receive payment from my client, I transfer the entire payment directly to my separate savings account (see above). I’m into saving radically right now.

Every time we move into a new month, I top up my checking account so that the balance maintains at about 3 months’ worth of expenditure.

That also acts as my emergency fund. In case anything happens, I dip into it, but I never touch the money in my savings account.

If you are an employee, things are even more straightforward. Set up a Standing Instruction so that a certain amount of money is immediately and automatically transferred to your savings account the moment your salary comes in – out of sight, out of mind.

For some people that amount is 20% of their income every month; for some it’s 50%, and for others, 80% (in extreme cases). It’s up to you, but the more the merrier of course.

Remember to maintain an emergency fund so that you never have to use money from your savings account.

5. Increase your income

We have already established how important savings are, but once you know how to save, it’s time to work on increasing your income.

There are many ways to earn more money – get a part-time job, promote yourself more if you are a freelancer, start a small side-business, work as a virtual assistant on your days off, be a part-time florist via Instagram, change jobs, etc.

Yes, it’s not easy, and I applaud you if this is what you are trying to do right now, but I’m a firm believer of “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.

It always helps to know how other people before you have done it before. This is a podcast I like that is all about how to side hustle and also features stories about people who have managed to make money doing things as disparate as selling photos on Pinterest or earning an additional $3,000/month via their blog.

Not for the faint-hearted, but you are not faint-hearted, are you?

6. Invest your money

This is an area that I am still learning about, but in terms of investment, due to the effects of compounding over time, it’s best to start as early as possible.

Also don’t get the wrong idea that you can only invest in things like property or the stock market. Anything you do that allows your money to grow is a form of investment, and that can mean investing in yourself if you are a freelancer or a solopreneur or a small business owner. Buy books that can teach you a much-needed skill, go for an online course, join a workshop – in short, invest in upgrading your awesomeness, and use your awesomeness to earn more money!

If you are thinking of investing in a more traditional, low-cost but effective manner, index investing is a pretty good way to do it.

As JL Collins said, “Stop thinking about what your money can buy; start thinking about what your money can earn”.

6. Avoid debt

Don’t allow yourself to fall into debt. Avoid installments (it’s stupid). Reconsider your expensive masters degree that requires you to take out a hefty study loan (will it really give you better opportunities at work?). Use your credit card smartly (or cut them up if you are prone to spending future money with your credit cards).

In other words, debt is evil (unless you are using it to build the next Apple).

People who are in debt can never start to build wealth until they clear their debt. And we know how difficult it can be to demolish one’s debt. So don’t even get there. Just don’t.

Finally, what is “financial happiness”?

So we have got the practical strategies out of the way. Let’s get abstract now…

Financial happiness isn’t just about being rich. And it’s definitely not about having a lot of money.

To reach financial happiness is to be at a place where you are no longer trapped, fooled, or controlled by money.

You are the master of money, instead of its servant.

Look around you. Looks at the two kinds of people around you.

The ones who are lost in an almost automatic and life-long pursuit of wealth and achievement and external affirmation. They don’t seem to know what they are doing.

And on the other side, the ones who seem to be… in control, balanced, happy.

Who do you want to be?

We underestimate how much control we have over our lives. We think it’s fate or destiny or our genes. But really sometimes it’s just ourselves…

We really can be whoever we want to be.

So it doesn’t matter if you are in a bad place financially right now. The best time to change course is now.

I wish you all the best in your journey towards financial happiness, and if you have any personal finance related stories to share, please feel free to comment below.

Thank you for reading this long post, and I’ll be back next week!

“Do you make enough money to survive?”

In my long journey to escape this whole giant rat race, I have been asked this question multiple times.

When I was running my cafe, people – random strangers – would come up to me and ask bluntly, “So are you able to make money doing this?” (The honest answer? No.)

Later on, I’d had to deal with the skepticism of my family and friends about the inherent financial instability of my decision to find my own way in this world.

Meeting up with friends from school was painful sometimes. At that time they were all fresh university graduates and had all just secured comfortable jobs paying them $3,000 – $5,000 a month. They would openly and excitedly exchange their salary figures, but would look at me quizzically and ask, “So… are you doing okay? Surviving?”

It was a good time in their lives and I was truly happy for them, and it really wasn’t their fault at all that they would ask me something like that – they were just concerned about me.

Most people have this idea that freelancers cannot earn much money and don’t have much job security. When I was starting out, that was certainly true – I really was barely scraping by. For YEARS. To add on to everything was the interminable uncertainty, unlike my friends, who could look forward to their promotions and their bonuses.

But having come a little further along the journey, I want to dispel the misconception that freelancers cannot earn good money.

Fear, lots and lots of fear

Many people desperately want to quit their jobs and start their own small businesses or become a successful freelancer (just look around you).

They want the perks that come with the freelance life. The freedom. Not having to wake up to go to the office every day. Not having to answer to a boss or to have to do things that suck the joy out of their soul.

But they don’t want the sacrifices and the pain and the uncertainty that come with actually quitting their jobs to do their own thing.

Mostly, they are mortally afraid – of not having their salary automatically transferred to their bank accounts every month; of not making enough money to feed themselves.

Fear sucks.

Two truths

Truth number 1: Freelancers can make good money.

Truth number 2: Full-time employees are often underpaid.

I have a very talented friend working at an art studio who earns $1,800 a month. And another friend who’s a full-time designer who earns less than $2,500 a month, even though she’s an amazing designer.

That’s not cool.

They are clearly underpaid (for their talents). If they could just venture out to do their own thing, they might be able to earn more, and have more creative freedom at that.

Step into a world of possibilities

I want to show you a year-by-year highlight of how much money I have made since I quit university to pursue my own path.

I’m doing this to show you real figures that a real freelancer makes (and can potentially make), so that you are no longer in the dark about the financial possibilities of working for yourself.

It takes patience, lots and lots of hard work, and some creative thinking (and very thick skin – by that I mean a slight disregard for what society thinks of you). It can take years before you even start seeing any returns. And then it might take years for things to start getting stable.

But it’s all worth it.

No pain, no gain.

A rundown

2007 – A year after I quit university, I started running my cafe. Startup capital was borrowed from my parents (I’d like to acknowledge how blessed I am to have parents who were crazy enough to support me in whatever I wanted to do). Every month I paid myself about $300 in living expenses. This went on for about two years. In that time I barely went out (I spent most of my time working in my cafe) so I didn’t need that much money.

2009 – After my cafe closed, I decided to give a 9-5 job a try. I got a job at a local arts organisation. My take home pay was about $1,500/month. This went on for six months, then I quit.

June 2009 – I’d had my taste of a regular job, and I hated it. It confirmed my gut feeling: I’m not cut out to work for someone else. It was at this point that I steeled my resolve to make a living working for myself doing what I love. I didn’t know yet what that was; all I knew was that I didn’t want to work in an office. I wanted to create my own path, even if I didn’t have a roadmap. During this time I began trying to become a freelance writer (since, after some serious thinking, it was a skill I had and something I thought I’d enjoy doing). I started writing for free for a few publications. I survived on the money I’d saved from my job at the arts organisation.

2010 – Throughout 2010 I probably earned not more than $1,000 from all my freelance writing assignments. I realised at this point that freelance writing pays peanuts. I took on a translation project that paid somewhat better at $100 per article. It was a difficult time.

2011 – I began teaching tuition. I worked quite hard and had quite a few students so I began earning about $1,500/month. I didn’t really enjoy it but it helped me to survive while I continued finding my own way as a freelance creative. At this stage I was winding down on my freelance writing (although there wasn’t much to wind down haha) and trying to figure out my next step. Going back to a 9-5 job was definitely not an option for me.

2012 – I started part-time hosting a radio show. It paid a few hundred dollars a month. I was still teaching tuition to survive at this point, so I was earning about $1,500-$1,800 a month. Early 2012, I decided I would try to become a freelance photographer (something I’d always wanted to pursue but hadn’t dared to, since it felt like an impossible goal), since I’d failed to gain any traction in freelance writing. I started doing my personal photo project Creative People + Projects and began telling everyone I knew that I was now “a photographer”. Began shooting free and low-paying photography jobs for all sorts of different people.

April 2013 – After about a year of shooting, directly because of my photo project Creative People + Projects, I got my first 4-figure ($5,000) photography job and another 4-figure job ($3,500 to shoot a magazine cover) within a month. I consider these two jobs together as my first big break. The income I earned from them gave me the confidence (and the financial buffer) to keep persisting. I also started doing editorial (magazine) work that paid a few hundred dollars a shoot after I decided to ask.

April 2014 – This was a huge milestone for me: I got my first 5-figure photography job. I was jumping with joy when the job was confirmed. It was a commercial shoot for a private bank’s publication that paid about $13,000 for 3 half-day shoots.

June 2014 – From this point onwards, I began getting a steady stream of photography jobs. Most of them were 4-figure and 5-figure commercial jobs. I continued to shoot editorial work at the same time.

July 2015 – Another milestone: I got paid $20,000 to shoot an advertising billboard. 2 days’ work.

Dec 2016 – I recently got represented by a photo agency who will now help promote me and help me get bigger commercial/advertising jobs. It’s been 3 years since photography became financially viable for me, allowing me to pursue it full time; 10 years since I quit university to pursue my own path in life. In between, 7 years of self-doubting, uncertainty, searching, failing. In the last 3 years as a photographer I haven’t stopped working.

Some questions

The most important question in your mind – how does a freelancer get 4-figure and 5-figure jobs?

The grossly simplified answer – by working with corporations who have money. Companies are all about the bottom line. If you can help them earn money, they tend to pay well. So think of how your skills can help a company or a brand earn money.

Creativity is a much-needed skill in today’s society because it helps a company stand out from the noise. Example: If you are good at miniature food styling, you could have been hired by Singapore Airlines to consult for this brilliant advertisement that features… miniature food:

For photography, since it is so tied up with the commercial needs of companies and organisations (almost every brand in the world needs photography to tells its story), it becomes something that is highly valued.

If you want to be pragmatic, find a skill that the market needs (this is very important if you want a lucrative career as a freelancer) and that you enjoy, and become good at it, then use it to help companies earn money. Example: Aaron Nieh, a designer from Taiwan, is so good at what he does that he practically designs the album covers of every singer in Taiwan with good taste – his design helps them to sell their CDs; even the Taiwanese government engaged him to do design work for them. (In future articles I will write about how to attract the attention of companies and brands. According to Cal Newport, one way is to be so good they can’t ignore you.)

Still, generally, all kinds of freelance work has the potential to give you more income than if you were working a normal job (unless you have climbed to the upper levels of the corporate ladder, then that’s a different story).

Can a freelancer have consistent income?

There are always going to be ups and downs. Some months you earn more, some months you earn less. But at the end of the day, if you can get big jobs, the bigger jobs can make up for the bad days.

Does freelance work ever become stable?

Yes and no. There is no inherent stability in being a freelancer. One day you might be busy fending off potential clients, another day you might be sitting at home refreshing your email, hoping for a job request. And that’s okay. That’s a truth you need to live with if you want the other (good) parts of this life. To counter this, learn to save as much of your income as you can for rainy days (an important lesson that I learned that will be the topic for a future post).

Do you need to be the best in your field to earn a good living as a freelancer?

No. Is anyone really the best in their field? There’s always someone better. I definitely don’t think that I’m the best in my field, but I think I’m good enough. I have also built relationships over the years, giving me access to a network of opportunities. These people in my network think of me when they want to hire a photographer. That’s how I get many of my jobs.

At which point does one consider oneself a “successful” freelancer?

When there is more or less a constant stream of work; when you have more job requests than you can take up; when you need to reject jobs.

Is freelancing a good path for everyone to pursue?

The honest answer is… no. Or at least it can be much more challenging for people who have dependents and who have to support their family. Or if they already have a massive college debt to pay off. Having said that, nothing is impossible in this world. If this is what you want, nothing should stop you (or at least give yourself the chance to have a go at it before throwing in the towel).

The economy is really bad now. Should I still pursue my dream of being a freelancer?

Any time is an okay time to pursue your dream. It’s not about the economy. The economy will go up and down. But you can control how little you need. The less you need, the less you can afford to earn. That gives you some buffer to experiment with your life (especially if you are still young right now). So go and try. If you die tomorrow, would you regret the life you didn’t dare to live?

In closing

This was a long, slightly unnerving post to write. I’m a little nervous about putting it all out there like this, but I have learned that, if one wants to share effectively, honesty / total transparency is always the best policy.

I also wrote this to encourage the many people I know – including many of my friends – who want to quit the rat race and live life on their own terms. I hope this gave you a view of the possibilities of a freelance career and a strong push to pursue the life you want.

As always, I hope this article proved helpful and encouraging to you!

Got any more questions? Feel free to ask in the comment section below.

Sometimes it is about the money

When I was 20, I was a huge idealist. And a dreamer. I didn’t care for money at all. I thought it was the least important thing in the world. Passion was important, but not money.

After one year of university as an English major I dropped out and started a cafe. I’m pursuing my passion, I thought to myself, who the hell cares about profit?! This thought guided the (rather disastrous) way I ran the cafe. My startup capital was money I’d borrowed from my parents (since, as a student, I had zero savings). The cafe closed after less than two years.

The cafe I started when I was 20

After the cafe closed I was adrift. I had projects I wanted to work on, things I wanted to pursue, places I wanted to travel to, business ideas I was excited about – in other words, I had dreams, but I had no money. With no money, I had no freedom to pursue any of these things. This was the first time I began to have an inkling of the relationship between money and freedom.

In the next few years that ensued, I hopped from one thing to the other, hoping to pursue my passions. For about six months I worked in a local arts organisation; I did freelance writing; I published a magazine; I started an online publication; I tried part-time radio deejay-ing. My passions could barely feed me. And I began to realise this: I wasn’t satisfied with being a starving creative. But I didn’t want to make money doing something that sucked the soul out of me either. I wanted to have the cake and eat it too. This was a big and important mindshift for me.

My part-time DJ days

Casual Days, the magazine I published with $4,000 – made a loss on it

When I finally settled on the idea of becoming a photographer in 2012, it was after years of trying and failing repeatedly. Photography was something I’d always loved since I first picked up a camera when I was 17 or 18. But I hadn’t dared to dream that I could one day become a professional photographer. It felt too far away, like a distant land I could never reach. I had no idea how I could put a foot in the door of professional photography. But what did I have to lose? I had no money, no prospects (or it felt like that at the time, since I had dropped out and didn’t have a degree to my name). What I did have… was quite a bit of courage.

Everything clicked for me the moment I decided to become a photographer. An acquaintance that I’d met from my cafe days – who heard about this new move in my life – came out of nowhere and offered me my first well-paid photography job. He started the ball rolling for me, in a sense.

Luck played a big part too. I was entering the market at a time when the market was slowly shifting away from the kind of over-produced, over-glossy campaigns that have been popular for the longest time. Companies and brands wanted images that were authentic, intimate, and they wanted photographers who could bring something personal to their brands. My style was a good fit. If I had tried becoming a photographer ten years ago, when I was 20, I might not have made it (plus I sucked at photography then).

One of my first few jobs as a young and ignorant aspiring photographer – this was commissioned by Winkreative, the parent company of Monocle Magazine

My previous failures – the long road I’d taken – began to make sense.

Something else began to change too. For the first time in my life, I began making money. Because my skills were relatively valuable, I was paid a higher premium for it. And I wasn’t afraid to ask to be paid a premium, since I believed in my own value.

(Of course, before this could happen, I was teaching tuition for a year, shooting for my friends or friends of friends for free, taking up photoshoots that paid me $280 for 4 hours. Or $150 for 50 shots (over 3 hours). It was brutal.)

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need money. We wouldn’t even need to learn about money and how it works. But in this world that we live in, we do. If you don’t, you will suffer. You will settle back into an unsatisfying desk job. Or you will settle for being a lowly-paid creative. Don’t settle.

As a creative, we all face the same problem of wanting to pursue our passions and wanting to live comfortably while doing it (unless you are content with being a hobo, then maybe this article isn’t for you). We must then learn to think about money in a way that can best serve us.

I am deeply passionate about this topic because I see too many of my friends and fellow creatives slaving away doing good work for little to no money. I want to change that.

My advice is this (and take it only if you think it makes sense): don’t work for too little money. It’s okay at the beginning, when you are starting out, but once you become sure of your skills, go out there and charge a premium for it. Don’t let other people exploit you and your talents. Believe in your own value, fight for what you are worth. Your belief in your own value is reflected in how much you charge for your services.

In fact, as a creative, in my opinion, the best thing you can do is become a freelancer. You can earn much more as a freelancer (than as an employee) if you play the cards right. It might take awhile, but you can easily earn more than the take-home pay of $2,000 a full time job pays you to be a marketing executive or a copywriter or an illustrator.

I know I am at risk of sounding like a money-grubber. I am not. I spent years dirt poor doing things I love. But I learnt to think of money as being important because it gives me options, the chance to work on passion projects, confidence, and freedom. Sweet, sweet freedom. And it allows me to pay it forward.

Recently: working on a passion project to photograph 100 others who were born in the year 1986

I will write more on this topic – and hopefully with more actionable steps – but for now, I wish you luck, and I hope that you will experience a mindshift that will help your passion to converge with profitability.

That’s when magic happens.

(I’d be happy to reply your emails about this topic if you want to write me. Email me at rebeccatohphoto[at]

My new relationship with money

I don’t think of money the way I used to think of money just 6 months ago.

6 months ago, I’d walk into a mall thinking of what I could potentially buy to make myself happy.

Today, I walk into a mall only to buy what I need (if I need a stick of butter to cook dinner with I buy a stick of butter, full stop).

6 months ago, I’d walk into a bookstore and buy any book I wanted. Usually I’d buy at least two books or more. Sometimes three or four at one go. It was easy for me to spend $100 at the bookstore per visit.

Today, I borrow all my books from the public library. Most of the books I want to read are available in the library anyway. If it’s not, I don’t read it (there are so many other books in the world to read). Or I buy it on Kindle, so I save 30% or 40% or sometimes 50% off the paperback price. But even this happens only rarely nowadays.

6 months ago, I’d not blink an eye about spending $800 on a painting or $1,000 on a foldable bike. I needed these things, I’d tell myself. I needed them so I could try my hand at art collecting or be able to cycle to the swimming pool.

Today, I don’t buy random big ticket items anymore. I just don’t.

Have I become cheap? Not really. It’s just that I have experienced a crucial mindshift with regards to money. I no longer think of money as a currency I can use to buy things with; now I think of it as resources that I’d gained through the exchange of my own very precious life hours.

All the money I have, I have had to work for them. I’d to put in hours under the sun or in the studio, managing clients, shooting, editing. I had spent time – days and weeks and months and years of my life – in order to earn these money. Time that I can never get back.

So every time I buy something, I remind myself that the money I have now is actually time I can never get back.

It makes me think twice about what to buy.

Should I buy the latest iPad Pro or should I use it to, say, buy the freedom to not work for a month? In that month I can connect with my loved ones, travel somewhere to recharge, work on a passion project, etc.

The choice is obvious to me.