His father had died of cancer, his mother had not worked a day in 19 years, the family finances were fast depleting and he was earning only $800 a month while doing national service.
That was the distressing situation confronting Mr Isaac Mung two years ago, so the only child had to take charge, and fast.
"My mum had been managing our finances up until then, so I didn't know much," recalled Mr Mung, now a 21-year-old first-year student at Nanyang Technological University.
He decided to look through the family's bank statements and financial records one weekend.
"I looked at the records and thought, 'Oh man,'" he said.
Mr Mung learnt that he and his mother would have less than $60,000 in savings once he graduates from university in 2019.
By then, his mother, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2013, would be 66.
"After that weekend, I really panicked. I kept thinking, 'How am I going to save us from this situation?'
"I wasn't concerned about getting rich or being successful, I just wanted to survive."
He decided to pick up investing skills and spent his nights in the army studying. He would also spend weekends in camp, so he had more time to finish up his duties while reading up on finance.
"I mostly bought and read standard books like The Intelligent Investor and Security Analysis," Mr Mung said.
"They were very dry, so sometimes I download the audiobooks and listen to them when I travel... Desperation kept me going."
With the basics under his belt, Mr Mung started searching out people who were successful in investment and entrepreneurship.
"Back then, I did triathlons and I first met a few of them through joining a running group at CCAB (Co-Curricular Activities Branch) in Bukit Timah.
"While reading up on investment and start-ups, I realised some of (the other athletes) are actually quite well-known and thought, 'I'll just call them and see what happens.'" His persistence and initiative paid off, and he now calls many of them his mentors.
Mr Mung is studying electrical and electronic engineering with a minor in business.
He is also running two businesses - shirt-printing company Pisti Prints and graphic calculator rental service Bolide Ventures, which also develops websites and marketing strategies for clients.
Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?
A My father, who was an army regular, passed away from cancer when I was in Primary 4.
My mother was already 50 then. She quit her job when I was born to take care of me.
Our savings kept depleting since then, so we downgraded from a five-room to four-room Housing Board flat when I was in Primary 5, and that provided a sort of buffer for us to get by.
That was also when I started taking part-time jobs like selling ice cream and giving out fliers.
We were frugal and saved when we could.
Q How did you get interested in investing?
A I picked up investing as a way to improve our financial situation. I trade with my mother's stocks that she transferred to me, and have been trading for two years now.
Q Describe your investing strategy.
A For long-term investments, I buy Singapore stocks and I will do fundamental analysis. I look at the earnings per share (EPS) and price-to-book ratio.
I also do more research on the companies I want to invest in by reading their annual reports, bank reports and hedge funds consensus. I look out for buy ratings like a "strong buy".
I also invest in blue chips that pay decent dividends for the long term.
I do a bit of swing trading as well for United States stocks.
For that, I do more technical analysis because the market is more volatile. I monitor the trends and price patterns, and buy and sell within a few days.
For short-term investing, I trade on the margin, which is something like purchasing the stock by paying the margin and borrowing the balance from a bank or broker.
The margin is like collateral.
Because there is an element of speculation and more risk involved, I usually open a CFD (contracts for difference) position, which I do not hold for more than a week.
If stock prices go down, my CFD positions hedge against these decreases in price. Short-term losses will be compensated.
For short-term investing, I invest in pharmaceutical and technology companies such as Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Twitter and Facebook.
I invest in them because I like reading up on these sectors and try to keep up with the news.
For my long-term US stocks, I do fundamental analysis.
I also choose the companies I invest in based on who is managing the company.
Q What's in your portfolio?
A My portfolio value for Singapore stocks ranges from $100,000 to $110,000.
Some 40 per cent of my Singapore portfolio is made up of OCBC shares. They give decent dividends.
Last year, the net dividend yield was 3.66 per cent.
I also hold shares like Singtel for the dividends.
My other shares include Mapletree and Sembcorp Industries.
For short-term US shares, I recently purchased 1,300 shares of GoPro, so that is around US$16,000 (S$21,600) worth of shares.
My margin is only $4,000 though, and margin trading is quite high risk. But with higher risk comes higher returns.
My US portfolio value is around US$20,000. I also have shares I plan to hold for the long term such as Visa, Tesla and Ferrari.
I have put in $1,000 in my graphic calculator rental company, Bolide Ventures, which I started last year.
We buy graphic calculators and rent them out to students, charging $25 per semester.
For the first semester, we charged $20 and were fully rented out within the first month.
The start-up cost was high and our rental rates are quite low, so I expect a longer break-even time, perhaps in a year.
I also invested $10,000 in Pisti Prints, my friend's shirt-printing company. We provide printing services for schools and companies and since I am still in school, I am the point of contact, so we are able to respond very quickly.
Our printing office is in Singapore too, so that helps.
In our first three months of operations, we earned $30,000 in revenue. I expect to break even in about two years. Starting a business requires patience.
Q What does money mean to you?
A Money cannot solve all problems, but it can alleviate my financial situation. Having the skills to make money is important.
Recently, I met this Malaysian student who came to study in Singapore. He was on a scholarship and if his GPA (grade point average) drops too much and goes under a certain benchmark, his scholarship will be revoked.
He will not have enough money to pay for school fees.
I felt he should have more control over his financial situation and I am teaching him basic investing, as well as how to build websites for clients. The more basic websites can sell for as much as $2,000, and e-commerce sites can sell for $5,000.
That is a semester's worth of school fees.
The time I take to make each website ranges from a few hours to a few weeks.
I know that even if I lose all my money on a bad bet, I still have skills and can work to earn money and survive.
Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?
A I tend to spend more on food.
I take my mother to eat at nice restaurants during her birthday, Christmas and New Year.
For Valentine's Day this year, I took my girlfriend to Italian restaurant Dolce Vita for dinner. These are yearly occasions and I can spend anywhere from $80 to $500.
Q How are you planning for retirement?
A I am investing in high-dividend yielding, blue-chip stocks.
I also have three bank accounts - one for my expenses, one for investments and the last one is purely for savings. Around 20 per cent of whatever I earn from stocks or business deals is set aside and put into the savings account.
I aim to get $20,000 a month in passive income by the age of 28.
Actually, I do not want to retire.
If you find something you love, you will not want to stop doing it.
For me, those things are investment and entrepreneurship, and they energise me. When I am old, I may be less involved but I will not retire completely.
Q What are your immediate investment plans?
A It is about time I bought some Reits (real estate investment trusts) and diversified my portfolio with some bonds.
For Reits, I am looking at Lippo Malls Indonesia Retail Trust.
Q Home is now/I drive...
A I do not drive.
I take mainly public transport and sometimes Uber.
I live in a four-room HDB flat near Admiralty MRT station. There is a park nearby where my mother loves to take her morning walks.
Worst and best bets
Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?
A I bought Ferrari shares very near the IPO (initial public offering) date last October, when it was US$55 (S$74).
After I bought it, the price just kept falling and now it is US$41.
I should have waited longer after the IPO.
I am still holding the shares, so it is a paper loss, but I lost $2,000 over three months.
Q And what has been your best investment move?
A One of my better trades was in Tesla.
I first saw it as a company with a lot of potential because of its mission and vision.
I read (Tesla chief executive) Elon Musk's book and started researching more about the company. It is a very interesting stock because its performance is correlated to his two other companies, SpaceX and SolarCity.
To date, my returns on Tesla are 12 per cent.
I bought it in October last year at around US$211 and now it is US$237.
Another good trade was Sheng Siong, which I bought at 70 cents and sold at 78 cents.
That was when I was in the army two years ago and was just starting out in investing. I did not earn much but it was memorable.
This article was first published on April 3, 2016.
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