Interlude: More than just a job

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 15, 2019 - July 21, 2019.
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Last weekend, Popsie (my dad) came home and announced that he had been offered a job and would be accepting it. Immediately, a ball of guilt started forming in my chest as it reminded me of the time (exactly a year ago) when my mom told us that her former employer had agreed to have her come back to work.

Despite the excitement in their voices, I could not help but feel a pang of guilt. After all, I should be supporting them in their retirement years, especially since they had worked hard to put me through university.

Popsie turned 60 at the end of last year and mom is 63. They retired at the age of 57 and 55 respectively and used their Employees Provident Fund savings to pay for my tertiary education and our household needs.

After retiring, they embarked on a business venture using what was left of their savings. But the economy was not kind to them and that spelt the end of the family’s main source of income. I was working by that time and tried supporting them with what little savings I had.

Not long after that, my mom made the decision to go back to work after her former employer offered her the opportunity to do so. She had worked for the company for 30 years before retiring and still maintained a relationship with many of the people there despite leaving in 2011.

I was not happy with the idea but she explained that while her primary reason for going back to work was to generate income for the family, she also wanted to reconnect with her friends. “I do not want to be bored and stuck at home watching TV all day,” she said.

I had to accept her decision because the stark reality was that we needed the money. My salary was barely enough for our household needs. We tried to save every little way we could, from trying to reduce our electricity consumption to having home-cooked meals instead of eating out.

But one day, my mom pointed out that, considering the price of goods now, it would be better to eat out as the cost of cooking for a family of three came up to the same amount. There were times when we really struggled financially. The situation at home became tense and we felt a little depressed.

Popsie took on a few odd jobs here and there as he was not one to sit still. But there were times when he was idle and he clearly wanted to do something, anything, useful. In fact, I found him mopping the house at about midnight on several occasions.

At the height of our financial turmoil, we sat down and listed everything that we needed to take care of, starting with what was most urgent and important. At the top of the list was my apartment. As we could no longer afford the monthly bank loan payments and selling the place was not an option (the market value was too low), we decided to rent out the unit. A month later, I moved out after finding a tenant to rent the place for three years.

Next on the list was the car, a Peugeot 3008. The monthly instalments were high and the petrol consumption even higher. On top of that, in the last six months, the car would break down at least once a week and it would cost between RM200 and RM2,000 to fix it. This became such a burden that we decided to trade it in for a more cost-effective vehicle.

Since making these changes, our home has become a more positive space. My mom comes home after work in a cheery mood, eager to tell us about her day, while Popsie is so full of life and energy despite the fact that he leaves the house before I wake up and returns just before I go to bed.

A few days ago, I heard my mom on the phone with Popsie, chatting with him as he made his way home — something she used to do when he travelled to Kuala Lipis and back again for work about five years ago.

This has been a life lesson for me. What I discovered was that they just wanted to feel useful again and be able to contribute something to society. And when they had a greater sense of purpose, the mood at home improved tremendously.

We still have some debts to pay off, but we are getting there. More importantly, our house is a home again.