How I put my retirement plans on autopilot, so I can focus on other things I prefer to worry about
Each morning, I get out of bed thinking about how I can build a better retirement plan for myself. Said no one ever.
As a co-founder of DollarsAndSense, many people assume I enjoy scrutinising every last dollar I spend, poring through my insurance policies each night and squirrelling away as much money as I can.
This couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Just like any other person, I prefer to do things that are more fun. I would rather spend time with my wife and two young boys at the beach or binge-watch The Walking Dead. Instead of looking through insurance policies, I’d rather play a game of football (when it is allowed). Given a choice, I would prefer to be overseas right now on a holiday with my family (if we could travel) rather than worry about my investment portfolio.
As entrepreneurs, we also tend to spend a lot of time on our business. While there is no guarantee that spending more time on DollarsAndSense will translate into a more valuable company, the chances should be higher.
The obvious con is what all of us already understood when we chose this path – we rarely get to do the fun stuff and may also miss out on family time or social life that we can never get back.
With time being such a precious commodity for business owners, we need to prioritise what we spend it on. To maximise the number of hours I have in a day, I think about my decisions, but try to autopilot as much of the process as possible.
Spending modestly empowered me to make a life-changing decision
In the first few years of my career, I scrutinised every dollar I spent. I used to religiously whip out my phone to record exactly what I was spending into an expense tracker app.
Not surprisingly, this got boring and painful very quickly. But it instilled a discipline to reduce unnecessary spending, which led me to save about 50% of my salary each month.
I was concurrently working on my start-up after work and during the weekends. At the back of my mind, I always knew that financial sacrifices had to be made if I ever wanted to venture into full-time entrepreneurship.
Despite all my plans, when the time finally came to pursue my start-up full-time, it was still not a clear-cut decision. I had just married my wife, who is from Hong Kong. Being new here, she was not working (and would continue to search for a job for about a year). Money was obviously tight.
During this time, DollarsAndSense had evolved from a hobby to a side-hustle, and now to a business. That was the tipping point for growth as the personal finance space was heating up, business traction was gaining and more resources were required to differentiate ourselves from an increasing number of one-man finance blogs.
Business owners would also appreciate the fact that opportunities don’t wait for the perfect time to knock on the door – I either had to dedicate full-time efforts to DollarsAndSense or turn my back on it.
After debating the decision with my wife and my co-founder (more than once) I decided it was an opportunity that I would rue passing up. Giving up on a brand I had painstakingly built from nothing into one of the largest personal finance websites for more than five years was simply not an option.
If I really wanted to “love what you do, so you never have to work another day” – this was it.
By the way, that quote is a lie. I love what I do, but sometimes, it’s also really difficult doing it.
Because of the savings I had built up, I was able to go full-time into DollarsAndSense without having to re-engineer my whole life. I could afford to take a pay cut of more than 30%, and still split it with my yet-to-be-employed wife. Thankfully, I was still living with my parents as well, and we were sharing the cost of household expenses.
Entrepreneurs really require a solid support system to even consider doing what we do.
If I had been spending 80% or 90% of what I was earning, I may never have been able to join DollarsAndSense. Spending modestly gave me the flexibility to make this life-changing decision to join my start-up.
Making full use of my CPF – as a business owner
Being an entrepreneur can be a risky endeavour. Taking a pay cut to join the company was also a risk on its own. That’s why – apart from being the co-founder – I also became an employee of the company, contributing to all three of my CPF accounts from my salary when I joined DollarsAndSense. It is virtually risk-free and pays a relatively decent interest rate of up to 5%* on my Special Account (SA) and MediSave Account (MA) savings, and up to 3.5%* on the savings in the Ordinary Account (OA). Contributions are also tax-free.
This helped put my home-purchase and paying for the birth of my children on autopilot.
Without having to set aside anything extra, I could afford my Build-to-Order HDB down payment. Having this pot turned out to be crucial as my wife didn’t have much CPF savings to contribute, having just become a Singapore Permanent Resident.
When my two children were born, I was also able to use my MA savings to pay for the delivery expenses via the Maternity MediSave package. I also chose to use only my CPF savings rather than my wife’s, since her combined balances had not reached $60,000, while mine has. This way, it also helps her balances grow faster as she enjoys an extra 1%* interest on her CPF balances.
Today, my wife and I are both working to snowball our CPF balances for our retirement. This will put our basic retirement needs on autopilot. Having recently done some financial planning, I am on track to having over $1 million in my CPF accounts by the time I turn 55.
As I continue to make my monthly CPF contributions, my CPF savings are estimated to grow beyond the current Enhanced Retirement Sum. This will give me even more flexibility in cashing out the excess savings in my SA and OA, while ensuring I am laying the foundations for a decent lifelong retirement income through CPF LIFE . However, as with all decisions, this may change depending on how much I use from my CPF OA balances to pay for my home mortgage payments.
Combined with my investment pot, I may also have the flexibility to retire earlier or indulge a little more during my retirement.
As a business owner, you may also see lumpy distributions in your earnings from year to year. By making calculations in advance, you can make CPF top-ups in the years that you are more able to do so, and enjoy tax relief, while growing your SA or MA savings. You can also combine this with other initiatives such as contributing to your Supplementary Retirement Scheme (SRS) account annually. The most notable difference is that CPF top-ups grow at a risk-free interest rate of up to 5%* per annum, while we will need to put in more effort to invest through SRS.
Automating my long-term investments
While entrepreneurs are already taking big risks with our businesses, we also cannot afford to let our funds sit idle in the bank. Reinvesting every single cent back into the business may help us charge forward faster, but it means much higher financial risks for our loved ones as well.
We need to strike a balance between re-investing into our business, growing our funds in a safe way (i.e. with CPF or just hoarding cash in bank), and to take a moderate level of risk by investing into stocks to grow another pot for our future.
I chose to partly automate my investing decisions. Each month, some of my money is channeled into a globally diversified portfolio regardless of whether the markets are at an all-time high (like today), or when markets have crashed 30% with no end in sight (like in March 2020 during the heights of COVID-19 uncertainties).
Doing this creates another nest egg for my retirement, to supplement what my CPF savings can give me. With nearly 30 years to go before I retire, I think I can afford to take calculated risks in the stock market. I have a relatively long runway to ride out downturns while being able to potentially earn even more returns too, with a separate pot of savings.
Prioritising our health too
Eating right, keeping active and building mental resilience are essential factors to living a balanced lifestyle.
As an individual, I enjoy keeping an active lifestyle – whether it’s going for a run, spending some time in the gym, playing football or going for a swim. This is one of the few moments I can take my mind off work and blow off some of the proverbial steam. Scheduling such activities in my calendar is also a great way to log out of work and get away from the screen.
How does doing this serve to autopilot my retirement plans?
If I’m healthy, I can work hard on my business. And if I can work hard on my business, I will, at the very least, be able to earn a salary and contribute to my CPF savings.
Even without having any other plans to save or invest in place, my retirement adequacy would be strengthened. It would also be growing at a relatively good interest rate.
Finally, while the unexpected can happen to any of us at any time, prioritising my health increases our chances of spending more quality time – in good health and for longer years – with my family.
Because the unexpected can happen at any moment, we also need to have an “autopilot” solution if it happens. While your MediShield Life and MA savings can kick in to tide you through in times of such needs, you can also consider purchasing life insurance as an additional way to ensure that loved ones continue to be taken care of in our absence.
Just like how airline pilots utilise autopilot so that they can focus on other important aspects of the flight, likewise you and I can choose to autopilot certain aspects of our lives so that we too, have more time and energy to focus on the things we care about – like our family, business and playing (or watching) sports.