[Commentary] The Negativity Around Financial Advice

Being poor in this country is no fun.

Banks reject their loans and credit card applications. Society judges them for getting married and having children (“cannot afford, don’t la!”). They’re priced out of accommodation near public transportation and have to spend more on transportation (the irony!!).

Before we proceed, let me just preface this article with this statement: I’ve never been poor. While we had some tough moments, we never went hungry and we’ve always had shelter. I can’t even pretend to understand the systemic barriers faced by different poor communities all over Malaysia, especially those who face multiple discrimination.

But I can empathise. Partially due to my work background (I did social work before somehow ending up with this career), and partially because, I dunno, there is absolutely no excuse not to educate myself in this day and age.

Theoretically, we know how to help the most vulnerable families: give them RM900 per month. The political will is not there though. Instead the people are asked to rely on their own retirement money. And we are told to improve our financial literacy.

We don’t need financial literacy?

October 2020 was Financial Literacy Month, and along with all the initiatives organised by FEN or Financial Education Network, came this discussion: do we need financial literacy? As one joyful writer from Malay Mail puts it, financial education initiatives are so tone-deaf, when what the people truly need is more income and stronger support networks.

Firstly, I acknowledge the anger. Must be frustrating to be told to save money despite high cost of living.

Secondly, why are we being binary? It’s not either-or, it’s both, we need both financial education AND higher wages + fix the systemic issues.

Thirdly,  sure I admit a lot of financial advice out there is not relevant. There’s no secret here – the world doesn’t revolve around one person exclusively, so just pick the ones that do work for your situation and move on.

But at the same time, and this pains me to say it, as someone who has been in the personal finance space for a while: society actually hates realistic financial advice for the poor.

Why do you hate financial advice catered to the poor?

In the same way that women sometimes undermine and hinder the success of other women (hello Christy Ng, I still remember when you said long maternity leave will deter employers from hiring women in top positions), there is a lot of mutual ill-will among the B40 (and struggling M40) group.

Perfect example: when Azizul Azli Ahmad shared a sample budget breakdown for RM1500 salary, I saw SO MANY PEOPLE rudely commenting how he’s an enabler for low wages, and WHY DON’T EMPLOYERS PAY MORE INSTEAD.

 

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#TabungBajet BILA GAJI KECIL 1. Bajet ini untuk gaji kita yang kecil, kita masih ada pilihan untuk merancang hidup. 2. Bajet ini untuk keluarga kecil yang hanya ada satu anak paling maksimum dan tinggal diluar bandar. 3. Bajet setiap keluarga adalah berbeza bergantung keperluan keluarga kita, ia tak akan sama dengan mana mana keluarga lain. 4. Sebaiknya jangan ada hutang kerana jika ada hutang akan menekan bajet kita. Bahaya jika anda belum mampu menabung dan mula ada hutang. 5. Bagi gaji bawah RM3000 ushakan jangan beli kereta baru dulu jika ada impian beli rumah. Dapat kereta terpakai pun jadilah, jika tidak kita makin susah nak beli rumah. 6. Susah macam manapun tetaplah ada simpanan setiap bulan. Kita tak tahu bila kita akan susah lagi. Jangan merungut sebab bila kita susah orang belum tentu akan bantu kita. 7. Jika belum mampu mengirim yang ke orang tua, bincang baik baik dengan mereka. jangan diamkan sahaja. Tetapi jika kita percayakan keberkatan dan doa ibubapa. Ia tak akan putuskan rezeki kita. Jangan juga tak beri sumbangan buat ibubapa tetapi kereta luar negara. Sumbangan sihat buat ibubapa adalah lebih dari 5% gaji kita. (Kadar zakat adalah 2.5%, jangan bagi sumbangan kurang dari itu nanti ibubapa kita hanya dapat setaraf penerima zakat sahaja) 8. Jangan juga taksub dengan matematik dalam perancangan kewangan. Percayalah dengan KEBERKATAN . Semakin kita banyak memberi buat keluarga kita dengan baik dan ikhlas, akan ada rezeki luar biasa menanti kita nantinya. Tiada bajet yang sempurna buat sebuah keluarga, yang ada adalah keberkatan bagi setiap rezeki yang kita dapat dan kongsikan dengan keluarga. Salam hujung minggu semua, Kita jaga keluarga kita bukannya ahli politik yang sedang gilakan kuasa. Azizul Azli Ahmad #Kongsikan agar sekecil manapun gaji kita, hidup biarlah merancang dengan baik. jika kita kekal merungut, kita akan susah hidupnyanya nanti. #Belajar cipta pendapatan tambahan jangan bergantung pada gaji kecil sahaja.

A post shared by Azizul Azli Ahmad (@azizulazliahmad) on

You’re all correct in pointing those out, but you know that RM1500 monthly salary (and sometimes even less) is the reality for MANY people, right? They have NEVER seen budget breakdown tailored for them – much of the reference materials out there are for people who earn a minimum of RM2k and above salaries.

And now, finally, there is budget breakdown which the sub-RM2k income earners can use as reference. With this and a lot of temporary sacrifices, they can save up RM1000 in as fast as 10 months.

With that money they can use to start a business or upgrade skills to get better-paying jobs. With that money they can break from the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle and strengthen their financial net. This is exactly the solution, and the first step towards achieving financial freedom in Malaysia

IS THAT NOT WHAT YOU WANT FOR THE POOR? Tell me, because I’m perplexed by the hate received on this post, among B40 and M40 people themselves. That’s stupid!, some said, how is it possible to live like that! Impossible!

But;

We KNOW how resistant Malaysian Employers’ Federation is to increase the minimum wage.

We KNOW how good-paying jobs (or heck, jobs) are hard to come by.

We KNOW how Malaysians are underpaid. Malaysian companies keep 65% of the profits to themselves and distribute only 35% back to employees in wages. In advanced nations, the wage-to-GDP ratio is nearer to 50:50.

We KNOW how members of the current government aren’t exactly championing to reduce wealth inequality.

Yet netizens still give that big of a backlash to this person who correctly pointed out that personal short-term sacrifice is needed, for the sake of their future? Then what’s the alternative? To give up?

Direct the hate elsewhere, this isn’t helping. At least Azizul Azli Ahmad recognises the low-income earners – the most overlooked and invisible category – and offers a way to break free from the cycle.

Enable and celebrate progress, even small ones

In an ideal world, we don’t have this problem. It’s unfair, because no one chooses to be poor. But it is what it is.

So, can we please create spaces where financially-struggling people can see that their efforts and money journeys – no matter how small – aren’t hopeless? Can we offer some encouragement so they don’t lose hope to continue on?

Instead of saying, ‘Eleh can save RM10 only per month, for what’, say ‘Congratulations, you made progress this month!’

Instead of saying, ‘How can find RM350 house for rent anymore, impossible’, say ‘how wonderful for landlady/lords who provide that rate, let’s pray for them’.

Instead of saying, ‘Ew I don’t want to marry poor man, life so hard’ (I see what you write ladies), say ‘I am not afraid of the hard work needed to help my loving, supportive spouse in hard times’.

I do believe that the more welcoming this space is, both online and offline, the more people will feel that the effort they put into conscious money management is more tolerable. It’s hard, yes, but it doesn’t mean it should be all-out miserable.

And of course, if you are in decision-making positions, then you can enable people in other ways: Fix the policies and improve the system. Be the employer who provides living wage, not just to employees but also cleaners and janitors. Organise personal finance talks and money management lessons. Buy from small and home-based businesses where possible. Systemic issues are not something that one person can solve but collectively we can do a lot.

Thank you for reading this far, and for being supportive of upwards mobility. Let’s be open to creating positive spaces for financial wins, even small ones. It matters more than you know.

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7 comments

  1. Personally, I just feel that the whole save money when you have no money leftover to save pretty demeaning and nonsensical.

    Not only that, the poor’s savings can always be taken up by some emergency. Motorbike requiring repair. Fridge broke. Anything.

    And they are back to square 1.

    It’s pretty demotivating when you go back to square 1. I do think that it’s more important to maybe have universal basic income or have higher wages.

    Once we achieved that, then financial literacy is important.

    I’m not poor now but when I started my first job, the salary was meagre and it did piss me off when the financial advice was save. What is there to save when I can barely survive?

    So yea, I get why the poor doesn’t want to hear financial advice because it’s not relevant.

    It’s a bigger issue of low wages and high cost of living. But no one wants to talk about that (on a policy level) and much prefer to just blame the poor.

    1. Hi Carmen,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I truly hate the helpless feeling that comes with lack of systemic-level change.

      How did you escape the cycle, by the way? I would love to learn how individuals did it

  2. I seconded the comment from Carmen, and also Azrul Mohd Khalid’s comment in facebook on this particular article.

    As a B40, I found this article written only in a partial of good intention (close to ending the comment, I changed my mind: this is not written in any GENUINE good faith), and many more dreamy bubble gum things of a privileged optimist. You haven’t been broken yet by the unexpected things that befall on the poors that makes it impossible to save 1k in 10 months with that amount. People of 1.5k don’t simply come out of their woodwork at their convenience when they found even a little nuisance. These people are living it extremely difficult and are already being extremely conscious in our spending.

    Those people you see accepting 1.5k and and are still breathing? They don’t live on that alone. Apart from monetary assistance from distant relatives (because that’s the realest thing if you are even that lucky to have them, and keep a chain of borrowers among friends, zero bullshit here), doing extra gigs, having a second job and whatnot to further provide for their living and still hardly save, because apparently you couldn’t fathom emergencies are lining and taking their turns to bring us down and it’s not just the broken motorcycle or fridge, it’s things so personal and abject you couldn’t even fathom, it’s an unspoken list shared by the worldwide poor federation, even those who may sound well as I do now.

    You wanna know what those are that bring us down? Extra care for parents, the thought of even starting to save for their deaths, stolen vehicle, a realistic renting fee (the above rate is bull manure, but of course I don’t even take the website seriously judging from how convenient this article found its way to the web), repay the debt around your waist because others need their money back as well (not just them, PTPTN as well), your family member acting up, the unique cases goes on. I’ve seen them living like me. Too much to be said. Nothing is far from the truth.

    We have no time to learn new skills (hey we work around the clock remember?) and opening business that many others like me deem too risky. Those who do, and find themselves failed in it? Ohoho. Have you ever thought how on Earth can an engineer who earned belasan ribu ringgit can find himself in a difficult situation upon being fired? You might be thinking there should be a reskilling scheme for such man, he should have some money to support himself for a while given his salary history. Hahaha, found people who were willing to bank him money in order for him to restrategize. Ohoho didn’t they have the reskilling thingie going on and what do you think of the success rate upon an attempt at that.

    People say, job hopping may be able to get you a better pay, but you would have to restart, and it’s always at a cost that’s eating up the imaginary 1k value that you collected in AS LITTLE AS 10 MONTHS YIHIII!!! (Like courts ads, omg can’t believe I found a shallow article, such a spot on)

    Do you know how I managed to live on that wage? Entirely abandoning my parents and their home needs hahahaha, and I’m the only kid. It’s true. They have to figure it out themselves and they are very very old. I myself once asked them, “who asked you to end up living like this? Who asked you to give birth to me?” Glad that I heard the government sent them out food ONCE a few months ago, after that I hardly keep a tab. Otherwise, you can’t, you will not be in a good state of health dealing with commitments. Omg imagine if we don’t own that house I’d be dead thinking about paying for two rents. And the maintenance for the low cost rent LOL!!!

    You acknowdge it as a non-living wage up there when you proposed to the employer to provide living wage. Employers are going to chuckle, is this a joke for both sides? Don’t you think it renders all before as a completely useless advices? You are lucky not many poor people read this. Stay with privileged audience, you really have no talent to serve wider audience. Your acumen, insight, rhetoric, sympathy and emphaty proved juvenile that I’m ashamed of being younger than you.

    It’s a make believe proposal up there. My, my. That’s all, princess.

    1. Hi Melissa,

      Thank you for your comment. It’s insightful.

      What would you do, if you’re in my position? How can I contribute to meaningful change, if this is not the way?

  3. Nice article! I agree with a lot of what you say! I was a little worried at first, when I saw the title. You got me to click 😉

    Reminds me of this article: “Some consequences of having too little”, third link in the list below: https://psych.princeton.edu/person/eldar-shafir

    Bregman references this study when he argues for UBI, saying that people simply don’t have bandwidth to attend (or implement learnings from) “personal finance talks and money management lessons” that you recommend, while it is NOT an issue of intelligence, knowledge or personality traits.

    Also, many poorer individuals do have an active and somewhat consistent savings habit, but as someone else also mentioned in the comments, those savings are often used for financial emergencies.

    Agree that minimum wage must go up and local business must be supported more. Government has a difficult but essential role to play.

  4. Don’t talk to us (wait, the rest of the poor people aren’t reading, it’s only me), don’t tell things that actually many of those who are struggling know. What the people endured is not supposed to be tolerable.

    What do you want from readers actually? What impression do you want to garner from what appears to be intended to them? You cannot satisfy everybody, that’s true. But, your so-called “politely” demeaning us, I don’t see how is that any ruder. That’s all. I don’t want to visit the site.

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