girl working by the window

Practical Habits I Cultivated That Helped Me Survive My Lay-off

I can conjure up worst-case scenarios in my head, but 2020 is something else altogether. The worst did not hit me, just the unexpected – one that is not welcomed.
On New Year’s Day, I was ‘livin da vida loca’ in the United States, travelling while working, making the most out of being a digital nomad. It was fun while it lasted because as soon as I landed back on tanah tumpahnya darahku, the world seemed to have spun off its axis.
Let me give you some background before I let you in on the habits I cultivated. I was (and still am) a freelance writer taking a few writing projects here and there while working remotely for a social media marketing company based in Singapore. The nature of my job allowed me to work from anywhere, as long as I get my work done before the due date, which was fantastic. I’ve always wanted to work at my own time since I was in high school, even before I knew what my cita-cita was.

Then COVID-19 happened.

At the beginning of March 2020, the first wave hit Singapore. One of the businesses that were affected was the start-up company I was working for. Contracts were cancelled, and my boss was under pressure.
One fine Saturday, I received a lengthy text via Telegram advising me to take a break from work – an unpaid break. I later found out that I was being let go because the company could not afford me anymore. Many many reasons were given, and I was promised payment for what I had contributed.
However, I did not get paid. I requested for my letter of termination, but it also never came. I tried to contact the company, but I was ghosted and blocked! I contacted the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore, to rectify details and to make a report but what I found out was disheartening: I could not report a breach of contract because I was hired by the company – illegally!
Urm, what? I was told to get a lawyer to settle the matter in court – that means I’ll have to pay a lawyer in Singapore to get my pay. Thanks, but no thanks.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is what I call a rainy day. Here, I am going to let you know how I sediakan payung sebelum hujan (prepared for unforeseen difficulties).

I Started An Emergency Fund

putting coin into piggy bank
One of the things I wish I learnt from school was personal finance. When I entered the working world, payday was heaven on earth. I would spend my money because I had the money!
Macamlah so rich.
But after a few small incidents that required me to loan money from my dad and my then-boyfriend due to unforeseen circumstances (yes, so paiseh), I realised I had to get my act together.
I took the painful step of saving RM1,000 from the next paycheck and forced myself to eat more bread and less expensive food for just that month. My contribution toward my savings was significantly lesser for the following months, but that chunk I put aside motivated my saving habit.
When I was laid-off, I already built my emergency savings fund to last a few months. Therefore, I didn’t have to panic or go into an emotional breakdown when I knew a big chunk of my income was cut-off. The knowledge of having my savings to fall back on gave me a sense of relief. I knew I had enough to survive for the next few months, even if I was earning zero Ringgit.

I Stopped Shopping Online

Although I started saving, I never stopped spending. My love for shopping was real. I could convince myself to buy anything, even if it was useless. Every advertisement could resonate with me. Once, I bought an aluminium sheet from Shopee that was so flimsy and useless that I had to throw it away after unboxing it.
My online shopping spree lasted about two years. That is two years of buying clothes, accessories, shoes, household items, beauty products and other junk, online. I spent at least RM500 shopping online every month. Honestly, I could not remember most of what I bought.
credit card and online shopping
Sometime last year, I decided to go cold turkey – no more online shopping. I stopped linking my card to the shopping portals I frequent, so it was more of a hassle for me to key in my card details before I make a purchase. After three months of carting items and not checking them out, I felt like I was free from the bondage of online shopping. I still like to ‘window shop’ online, but none of my carted items gets checked-out; other than the essentials that I needed (eg. detergent and shampoo).
This habit was cultivated just in time before my lay-off, and I was able to save much more (about RM500) from unlearning the excessive shopping habit.

I Lived Below My Means

When your paycheck goes up, it is so natural to want to level up your lifestyle too. I wanted to live a life of luxury. I wanted to go for holidays, splurge on a nice resort stay where I can see the view from my window as I sink my teeth into fruits cut by the hotel’s kitchen staff. I wanted to afford to order food without doing mental calculations in my head and go ‘Wah, got service charge summore.’
But as the author of The Total Money Makeover, Dave Ramsay said, “If you live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”
And so I saved.
My husband and I have a joint savings account where we save up more than 20% of our pay each month. On top of that, I try to save up another 20% for miscellaneous purposes like travel, skincare (these things are expensive as heck!), investments, and other home contingencies. If I don’t save it, I don’t buy it!
To save almost 50% of my income would mean I had to live below my means. How I live below my means will be different from yours, but here’s how I do it:
  1. No restaurant dining. Except during some weekends, in which my husband will foot the bill (a decision we made together before we got married).
  2. Not buying a new car means I save on instalments. I am driving my dad’s 20-year-old creaking old Proton Wira.
  3. Cooking at home is cheaper than dining out. I make it a point to cook at home at least once a day, and that also consists of reheating and remaking leftovers to be a whole new meal.
  4. I rarely buy full price; I wait for sales or buy second hand if I can help it.
  5. Being fashionable doesn’t mean splurging on the latest outfits on the shelves. I shop in thrift stores and jazz up outfits with creativity instead.
If you want to save up more than you are doing now, start with small adjustments. It does not have to be similar to mine, but I hope my little listing gives you an idea.

I Updated My CV

Your CV or resume should not only be updated when it is time for you to look for a job. It should be continually updated even when you are not planning to leave the company or if you’ve been working there for um-teen years. Your company is not indebted to you. If anything tragic happens to the company and you are let-go, you can’t blame the company.
Unfortunately, the previous company I worked for did not provide me with compensation (and my pay – let me be salty for a while), but I cannot be stuck running wild in my victim mindset. I had full control of the situation, and hence, I had to act.
I have been updating my CV every few months and have been applying for some freelance and full-time jobs before I was let-go. The reason I was doing it was to find out how much companies were willing to pay for my writing services.
As it turns out, having my CV updated and applying for jobs even though I had a job helped me secure a few freelance jobs within the same week that I lost my job.

I Had Side Hustles

Side hustles have always been my means of earning extra since I entered the working world. I wrote for publications on a freelance basis to earn extra pocket money. Hustling on the side sharpened my skills, built my portfolio and gave me perspective on the business of things.
After making writing my side hustle, I started singing on some weekend nights in cafes and bars. I am blessed to be surrounded by musician friends (my husband is also a part-time musician), and I could use my voice to earn some money.
Later on, I started a granola business. It wasn’t something I planned on doing. One Christmas a few years ago, my then-boyfriend and I decided to make granolas as Christmas gifts. Lo and behold, our friends who received the gift loved it so much and asked if they could buy them. I put a little thought to it and decided, why not!
It was a little tougher than my other two no-capital-needed hustles. I had to spend time purchasing raw ingredients, set aside time to make the granolas and convince people to buy them. Sometimes, I would open my little stall during weekend markets in Penang, and once in a blue moon, in KL.
All these side hustles (except singing because live music is not allowed during MCO) helped me earn some money during my unemployment.

You can do it too!

You may be holding on to a stable job and making good money, but I would like to advise everyone to always have something to fall back on during emergencies. I didn’t cultivate all these habits overnight. Over time, I realised I had to adult and enforce safety nets around me – JUST IN CASE.
As of now, I am still unemployed but not worried. My side hustles are keeping me afloat, and thanks to my husband, I didn’t have to break the emergency savings fund. However, I did have to withdraw a little bit from my contingency savings fund for an emergency wisdom tooth extraction during the MCO period. It set me back RM1,000. If I did not set aside for emergencies, that minor operation would’ve put me in a difficult situation.
Because I went through this, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage and empower you to start building your safety net. Think about some ways you could lay your safety net for your finances and job. Money cannot buy happiness, but it can bail you out from being stuck in the vicious ‘not-enough-money’ cycle. It also gives you peace of mind if you have to go through job loss.
Keep in mind that trials in life are unavoidable. However, you can always prepare yourself from being a victim of difficult situations.

A concoction of oxymoronic attributes, Rachel Yeoh is a lazy overachiever. She writes for a living, sings when the sun goes down and runs a homemade granola company with whatever is left of her time. Always planning for something to do while procrastinating on her bed - she is quick to be on her feet at any chance to travel.

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