Interlude: An expensive affair

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 6, 2019 - May 12, 2019.
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Two weeks ago, I caught up with a close friend. She lamented how her expenses had shot through the roof now that she was dating this guy.

This friend of mine had always been frugal, if not downright stingy. She used to buy second-hand clothing at “bundle shops” (where every item was RM5 or less), would never spend more than RM7 on economy rice and would park illegally just to save on parking charges.

Not too long ago, she met this guy the millennial way, by swiping right on Tinder. They met, enjoyed each other’s company and soon were dating seriously.

There was one problem, however. He liked to splurge. His mantra? The higher the price, the better the quality. And he did not blink an eye at forking out RM50 for valet parking, rather than looking for a parking spot at the mall on weekends.

At the beginning of their relationship, she would let him pay for everything. But eventually, her sense of independence reasserted itself and she insisted on paying her share of the expenses. “I am not some damsel in distress who needs someone to take care of me,” she told me scornfully.

Fair enough. Except that she had no idea just how much this would affect her bottom line. For starters, her boyfriend is a self-proclaimed foodie who favours hip and swanky restaurants that he reads about in Time Out magazine. So now, having a meal with him costs her about RM80, whereas her meals used to cost less than RM10.

My friend admits that while she initially tagged along out of curiosity, she has been influenced by some of his tastes and now enjoys the meals so much that the previously unthinkable RM80 is no longer a big deal. She only realised that she had changed drastically when she recalled glancing at a bill of RM150 and not thinking too much about it. “What is happening to me?” she exclaimed.

This is not the only additional expense she has taken on in trying to keep up with him. They also go on expensive holidays together, which she loves. But when she gets back home and checks her bank balance, she throws back her head and wails.

My friend is not from a rich family. She is used to working hard and paying her own way. In fact, while she was at university and her friends were out partying, she took up a series of jobs to help pay for her living expenses. Until today, she does not have a credit card, even though she more than qualifies for one.

She told me that her monthly savings had dwindled down to just a fraction of what she used to put away. If faced with any financial emergencies, such as her car breaking down, she would be in big trouble. She would be forced to dig into her hard-earned savings that she had carefully built up over the last few years, which is something she had never done before.

What could I say? However, I knew of a few good budgeting apps and suggested these to her. She downloaded one of them then and there. She listed her expenses and we were both floored — a whopping 35% of her money went on dining out and food deliveries.

Just for fun, I asked her if she could remember how much she used to spend before. She took out her diary (this is a person who would list down every expense) and we figured out that she used to spend only 15% of her salary on food.

There was no way she could sustain this lifestyle. Something had to give. I suggested that she cook and dine in at least four days a week. That would still give them three days of dining out and it would save her a chunk of money. In fact, when we crunched the numbers, we figured that she could bring her food bill down to 20% and save the remaining 15%.

“I am not sure he will go for it, though,” she sighed.

“Put your foot down! After all, you are an independent woman of the 21st century, right?” I reminded her.

“Right!” she agreed.

We tried to see how she could save even more. For starters, she could insist on buying only local produce, which is significantly cheaper than what she is buying now.

How did things go down? Well, her boyfriend learnt a thing or two about dealing with independent women. Now, they dine at home four times a week and her cooking has improved tremendously.

But that is not the most surprising bit. He has taken up cooking and has turned out to be a fine chef, although he does require further training when it comes to washing up after.

These days, her conversation sounds a little like my mother’s. “By the way, did you know that the huge local tomatoes only cost 50 sen each? Australian cherry tomatoes are RM6 for a 200g pack!” she said.

“Dude,” I said, “only old people talk about these things.”

And we both laughed.

She has also cancelled her video-on-demand subscriptions and started working out at home to save on gym memberships and yoga classes.

I am taking a leaf out of her book and have started monitoring my own expenses using my favourite budgeting app, Spending Tracker. I have discovered that there is some fat I could trim. Maybe I could wean myself off Lazada.

I recently bought two houseplants on impulse because I thought they were cheap. That was before I realised that I would have to spend money on fertiliser from time to time.

Note to self: fertiliser is not cheap.

Anyone in the market for a ficus lyrata?