First Person: The importance of financial education

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 8, 2017 - May 14, 2017.
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Anna Vanessa Haotanto became a self-made millionaire at 29, an age when many people are still climbing the corporate ladder. She achieved this mainly by making smart investments and saving prudently. 

Born and raised in Singapore, Haotanto, now 32, is the founder of thenewsavvy.com, an online platform that focuses on financial and career issues facing women in Asia. She is also director of a private investment firm. For the past three years, she was selected to attend Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit.

Haotanto’s journey towards financial independence began in 1997 when her parents’ business failed during the Asian financial crisis. “They chalked up about S$20,000 in credit card debt. The problem wasn’t so much about the debt, but the high interest rate of 24% per annum,” she says.

“On top of that, we were living in a rented flat. The rent increased by about 30% per annum. This made it very hard for my parents to save money to invest and grow their wealth. As the eldest child, I was worried about our situation.”

After graduating from high school, Haotanto decided to study finance at the Singapore Management University. She attended as many classes as she could to increase her knowledge of the subject, sometimes without earning any credits. These classes included equity investment, corporate finance and portfolio management. 

“I wanted to know how I could get my money to work harder for me. So, in school, I sat for almost all the finance courses. Sometimes, I asked to be allowed to attend for no credit. I was quite nerdy,” says Haotanto.

With what she learnt, she spent three hours in the classroom calculating how much she would need to earn and invest to help her parents pay off their debt. When she arrived at the figure, she asked herself, “How can I really do this?”

To work towards her goal, she decided to get a part-time job as a waitress and retail assistant while still attending classes. “I started working and saved most of the money I earned,” says Haotanto. 

She also gave tuition to school-going children and participated in internship programmes at a few companies. 

Haotanto adopted a frugal lifestyle not only to help pay off her parents’ debt but also to buy a house for the family. “I told myself that after paying off the debt, the first thing I wanted to do was buy a property for my family. I wanted us to have a permanent place to live and have that feeling of owning a home,” she says, adding that they could also avoid having to pay higher rent every year. 

After graduating from university, Haotanto worked for Citigroup and China Vest — a China-based merchant bank — as a banker and equity analyst for two years.

Seizing opportunities in times of crisis

During this period, she saved money and began investing in the Singapore stock market. “I started to trade small-cap Singapore stocks when I was an intern because I only had about S$3,000 to trade with. I invested the money I had and focused more on capital gains. I was quite aggressive,” says Haotanto. 

While working full-time in the financial industry, she began earning more and decided to invest aggressively in equities. By then, she had deeper knowledge of how to pick stocks and invest. 

“Later on, I started to trade on the US stock market when I was working in the financial industry as I was dealing with the market every day,” says Haotanto. 

Her breakthrough came during the 2008 global financial crisis. She seized the opportunity to invest heavily in the US equity market. She bought a few stocks whose prices collapsed due to the contagion effects of toxic mortgage-backed securities.

One of the stocks was Citigroup, which saw its share price plunge more than 90% in 2009 to as low as US$1. “I did not buy it at the lowest point as I was worried. But I managed to get an 18% return when I sold it later. I was very lucky that most of the stock prices came off during the crisis, so I rode the boom,” says Haotanto.

With her returns, she paid off her parents’ debt in 2009. A year later, she joined United Overseas Bank Ltd (UOB) as senior client adviser and vice-president. She earned a six-figure salary while making her money work hard in the stock market. The increase in her income, coupled with her frugal lifestyle, provided her with a larger capital base and she was able to get higher 

returns by investing wisely. 

She would also invest in technology companies with huge potential, such as Amazon.com. She bought the stock in 2012, when the share price was about US$220, and sold it for a 20% return later. By 2013, she had amassed US$1 million in cash. 

Today, Haotanto has changed her investment style and become more conservative and defensive. Instead of capital gains, she focuses on income generation and dividend plays. 

“That is because I have built an investment portfolio with a big enough capital base. Also, I do not really have time to follow the market and be exposed to the financial market as much,” she says.

“On top of that, I need a stable income to take care of my family and pay for my expenses. I also have to put some money into my business and take care of my team of six. That is why I am more cautious nowadays and invest for the longer term.”

On how she managed to overcome her challenges and become a millionaire at such a young age, Haotanto says it is not rocket science. “It is all about equipping yourself with financial knowledge, setting financial goals, saving as much money as you can and investing wisely. Also, the more you save, the more you can invest to expand your capital base and let your money grow money.”

Venturing out on her own

Haotanto has not focused on the financial market or advised high-net-worth individuals on how to achieve their target returns since 2015. It is her business, thenewsavvy.com, that takes up most of her time.

She says she started the online platform as a passion rather than a business. Back then, she was aware that financial literacy was lacking among women and wanted to improve the situation.

“I have a lot of women friends who earn a lot. But they end up splurging their money and not saving at all. I had a friend who earned quite well, but she started to buy branded bags and is now S$80,000 in debt,” says Haotanto. 

She recalls an experience that had a lasting impact on her and reminded her how important it is for 

women to have financial education and their own wealth. When she was 17, while volunteering for a non-profit organisation that helped underprivileged women, she met a woman who had been badly abused by her husband but endured the pain for the sake of her children.

“Clearly, she was being beaten and abused. There were bruises everywhere on her body. She told me her husband was an alcoholic. I told her to report the matter to the police and walk away from the relationship,” says Haotanto.

“But she said she couldn’t. She was worried that her husband would fight for sole custody of her children and they would be in bad hands. Also, if she reported to the police, who would earn money to raise her children? She was in a hopeless situation.

“If she had her own income or savings, she could choose to leave or have a new life. Having money is not about being rich or having multiple properties. It is about taking care of the people you love and ensuring that they are provided for.”

The incident also reminded her that she needed to sacrifice certain things in life to share the financial burden of her parents, such as choosing a banking career over being a journalist. “To me, learning about finance was a necessity and I grew to love it. But if I had been given a choice, I would have studied political science and been a journalist. However, without money, it is difficult to have a choice,” says Haotanto. 

What is her advice to women? She says it is for them to be financially educated and have their own income stream. They should also save for themselves and invest wisely. 

“The experience of the abused woman really hit me hard. As a woman, you really have to earn your own money even if you are in a loving relationship with your husband. You need that to be independent and have choices to make if something happens,” says Haotanto.