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Beauty pageant to tech industry: How Jeraldine Phneah took control of her career and bought a HDB flat by age 26

by ValueChampion

Wondering how to break into the tech industry or how to purchase your own HDB flat before turning 30? We hope our interview with Jeraldine Phneah, a popular blogger who also works in digital advertising in Singapore, could shed some valuable insights that could help you achieve these goals.

For young Singaporeans graduating from universities, the realities of the job market can be quite sobering. For example, the annual surveys of recent graduates from leading universities in Singapore found that only 78.4% of last year's graduates were able to find full-time jobs 6 months after their final examinations, down more than 10% from 89.8% in 2007. In this regard, it's becoming ever more important for young adults in Singapore to take both conscientious decisions and creative paths to craft a career that work for them. Jeraldine Phneah, a former beauty pageant in Singapore, has an interesting perspective to share. After graduating from NTU, she has been able to break into the tech industry while also having built a popular blog.

In particular, we were impressed by how she made very conscientious and strategic decisions to craft a career she wanted. She applies this same mindset to her own personal finances, which has helped her get her own HDB flat with her husband at a relatively young age of 26. Below is our interview with Jeraldine, we hope you learn a few things that you can readily apply to your daily life.

You've written about how career is the biggest investment one can make. What professional investments have you made that have been particularly helpful?

I feel that COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg’s career advice really guided me in making the most important decisions for my career. In her Harvard Business School speech, she said “Get on a rocket ship. When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves.” This piece of advice, which is why she herself also joined Google in its early days, inspired me to join a fast-growing industry thus ensure that I could be future-ready.

To make the career switch from a traditional research company to one which was a leader in digital analytics, the biggest investment I made was one in the form of time. Time is the most valuable commodity; after all, you can't earn back time after spending it. I’ve spent a great deal of effort and time outside work to pick up skills that are relevant for the digital economy, like digital analytics, search engine optimization, inbound marketing, wordpress, HTML/CSS and the Adobe creative suite.

Additionally, I spend time everyday to read up on the latest changes in my industry. The digital industry moves really fast. If I don’t keep up, I can become obsolete very quickly. I also make it a point to attend industry events once every quarter to broaden my industry contacts and knowledge. At the end of the day, it is really about hard work - dedicating time and effort consistently, being hungry for knowledge and building up your foundation brick by brick.

Jeraldine Phneah featured on Forbes when she was 26 years old.

You were able to save S$100k within 3.5 years of working at such a young age and already own a HDB flat with your husband. What motivated you to achieve this? What factors helped you to reach your goal?

Since young, my dream was to afford my own home as soon as possible. This was a goal I had since I was young as I wanted to be independent and enjoy the various benefits of living on my own. Having a laser focus on this target really forced me to want to maximize my earnings and savings in the shortest amount of time possible.

Photo of Jeraldine’s living room; Design by: Keith Phee;Photo credit: Marcus Lim.

Firstly, I lead a minimalist and frugal lifestyle. For instance, I don’t have a television set in my house, rarely wear accessories and do not own any branded bags or watches. While I work in the CBD, I’ve managed to keep my lunches on average around $3-4 per day.

Achieving this in a consumerist society requires a lot of self-discipline. Therefore, I've made a conscious decision to eliminate distractions such as unsubscribing to online store mailing lists and unfollowing social media influencers with extravagant lifestyles. As human beings, we all tend to be failable and easily tempted. So, I’ve made an effort to eliminate temptations in my life so I won’t feel tempted to overspend.

Another factor that really helped me was leveraging online resources. There are so many kind souls online such as those in the Seedly Personal Finance Community who were eager to share their perspectives and knowledge with others. Through their articles, I learnt several fundamental concepts such as the importance of compound interest, building an emergency fund, getting a good bank account and credit card, and optimizing my CPF account.

Finally, I guess that making the right career choices also helped greatly. My starting base salary was around $2,800 per month. I spent almost two years drawing this amount. However, if I stayed any longer in my first job, I knew I would not have been able to meet my financial goals as easily. In a lot of companies, your annual salary raise often do not match that of an external hire unless you’re not promoted. In fact, studies have shown that employees who stay in companies for longer than two years would get paid 50% less than those who switch jobs. At that point, I found this to be true for my situation as well.

What is the best financial advice someone has given you?

I once lamented to my older colleague about how inferior I felt that my peers were buying a car and condominium and when I didn’t even have a driving licence and couldn’t even afford HDB flat. He replied that we should not fall into the trap of lifestyle inflation. After all, nothing is forever. We cannot assume that we will always be earning the same salary. We may lose our jobs or have to take a pay cut due to various reasons such as a recession, being made redundant or to be a caregiver for an ill family member.

While we sometimes feel that such unfortunate circumstances would not befall us, his concerns were real. During my weekly house visits to understand the issues that Singaporeans face, I’ve seen this happen to some PMETs in their 40s and 50s who have difficulty finding a new job. Sometimes, this situation is made worse by having to care for a sick family member. I understood how common such cases are and how stressful it can be.

So, I have been focused on achieving a sustainable lifestyle and to avoid financial stress. While we are young, what we can do is to prepare for this change is to build an emergency fund and ensure that we have other sources of income besides our jobs.

Is there anything you wish you had known when 5 or 10 years ago that may have helped you achieve your goal more quickly? If you could do it again, what would you do differently?

If I could do it again, I would have started saving way earlier. When I was in university, I simply spent my internship allowance and money earned from my part time job without much thought. I didn’t quite understand the value of money and also dismissed investing as a “complicated guy thing” or “mathematical thing”.

I have a family member who is only in his 2nd year at university but has already saved more than what I did in my first year at work despite earning only NS allowance. He also started investing during his army days. I really admire that. If I had done the same, I would probably have more now.

What motivates you to blog and share your knowledge on current affairs and personal finance?

Our generation faces our own unique set of challenges as we enter the working world and begin to “adult”.

  • Our challenging graduate job market: With more graduates each year, having a degree no longer helps one to differentiate themselves and stand out in the job market. Recent statistics have shown that 1 in 5 graduates from our local universities were unable to find a job within 6 months. This number is more dismal for our peers from private universities where 1 in 2 are unable to find their first job within 6 months.
  • Cost of living: Our starting salaries for several sectors have not kept pace over the past decade with the increase in HDB prices; cost of weddings and other living expenses.
  • Being the sandwiched generation: Young adults face having to balance between providing for their parents, saving for their own retirement and saving for important goals such as housing and children.

Coming from a middle class household, I too face these challenges and care about the future of our country and her people. Thus, I blog to speak up for Singaporeans and to share my knowledge and experience to help Singaporeans like myself have greater financial security and the freedom to develop to their full potential.

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Do you have an interesting personal story to share with us as well? Please email us at [email protected]!

This was first published at Value Champion's website, "Beauty Pageant to Tech Industry: How Jeraldine Phneah Took Control of Her Career & Bought a HDB Flat by Age 26".