So I saw this in the papers today.

For 60 years, Madam Goh Kah Keow (above) lived a frugal life, saving as much money as she could as a cleaner while taking on odd jobs such as sweeping floors, collecting newspapers and even helping people do their laundry.

The 74-year-old, who has never married, does not have any formal education as her family was too poor to send her to school.

Through her toil and sweat, Madam Goh managed to save more than $400,000 in cash and jewellery, which she set aside for the day she stops working.

But her hard-earned life savings vanished in an instant after she helped a woman “in distress”.

While this case is terribly heart wrenching and is a perfect example of where I think the level of financial literacy in Singapore is at, there are a couple more points I think can be learnt from the article.

1. Frugality goes a long way

The version that I read (in today’s papers rather than the one in the link above which was from a week ago) mentioned how some people were skeptical that an uneducated woman working in jobs such as a dishwasher and cleaner could amass that amount of money.

If they read the article, they would have known that Madam Goh’s lifestyle is one of extreme frugality- she eats at home for all meals, stays in a studio apartment*, doesn’t have a television and doesn’t even have a passport because she never saw the need to go abroad. In doing so, she saved 50-70% of her monthly income ever since she started working.

Add to that the compounding of interest in the bank (many people today don’t realise that savings accounts yielded much higher interest rates in the past) and it’s actually not a surprise that Madam Goh has come so far despite having so little (in terms of education and family background). Of course, it helps that she doesn’t have any dependents either.

2. One wrong move can be seriously damaging

Madam Goh played her cards right for 60 years but one wrong move caused her to lose everything. This holds true for many people as well when they think that one big bet will turn things around or when they jump head in into a venture that promises high returns, thinking that this would be the moment that changes everything.

It’s true- that one moment will probably change everything but not in the way that you’d expect. Most long lasting wealth comes from the daily grind. It’s a habit and you have to eke your path slowly over time and continue at it until the day you decide that you have enough.

Which is why most investors never trade or speculate. If they do, it’s usually a small sum of money that they’re prepared to lose anyway. Investors don’t put all their eggs into one basket- they’re usually invested across a broad class of assets or even if they’re chiefly in equities, they are invested across different companies with business in different regions etc.

3. Superstition is dangerous for your wallet

In Madam Goh’s case, she was only cheated because the con artists played on her fear of the unknown and other- worldly. It’s pretty apparent that whoever decided to cheat her knew that she was fairly superstitious (maybe through observations of her going to the temple or offering incense and such) or they took a fair guess. Not difficult since many elderly Singaporean Chinese folk tend to subscribe to Chinese folk religion which is really a mish-mash of Buddhism and Taoism.

Putting Madam Goh’s case aside, it’s also amazing how many people spend thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars on superstitious artifacts where they have no way of telling whether it works or not. Once again rule of thumb if you’re superstitious should be: If it’s cheap on the pocket to buy yourself peace of mind, then so be it. If it’s expensive, then screw it.

By the way, I’m not singling out Chinese folk religion as particularly susceptible to these things. My general feel is that the more blindly religious** a person is, the more likely he/she is likely to fall for one of these scams.

4. Mental strength is the most important thing

Madam Goh was quoted in the article (the local paper’s version dated 29 July 2014) as saying that she has come to terms with the loss and is fortunate that she can and will continue to work for as long as she can. Add to that the fact that she doesn’t have any major illness, she probably will still be able to survive.

I think that’s the mentality of a winner- the ability to bounce back from being beat down hard. Eventually Madam Goh will be a stronger person than before.

 

It’s pretty devastating to read about news like this because this lady has done everything right for 60 years of her life. And it hasn’t been easy but she’s grit her teeth and done what she has to do. For everything to be taken away from her is simply injustice. At the same time, unless she has less than average mental faculties, she isn’t totally blameless for falling for a scam like this.

*Studio apartments in Singapore is the term for cheap forms of public housing designed for elderly folk.

**The general rule of thumb is that this kind of person will ignore what is happening in reality and rationalise events by saying that his/her faith is being tested. This person should start investing in the markets and see if the market cares what religion you subscribe to.

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