Risk averse actress is an avid saver

Actress Amy J. Cheng was fortunate enough to study overseas as a teenager and a postgraduate student but her childhood was not completely a bed of roses.

Her parents had split up and her mother had to convince her father to provide financial support so that Ms Cheng could go to school in Switzerland.

She says: "The difference between my circumstances and the rest of the wealthy children who went there to study was that my mum didn't want me to feel less so she somehow got this notion of putting me there."

The situation was really odd, says Ms Cheng. "I was in this environment where, as it was a finishing school in Switzerland, most of the students came from wealthy backgrounds , but at the same time I was very budget-conscious. I was in Montagnola, Lugano, on weekends; they would live it up, and I would go to Burger King with my friends. An even bigger treat would be to order an Italian pizza."

She went to Australia in 2011 to earn a postgraduate degree in education, which has helped in running courses at children's theatre company Act 3 Theatrics, which her husband founded. The company promotes literacy through drama and runs workshops for children on a regular basis, besides producing children's theatre.

After university, she briefly worked in public relations and advertising but was drawn to acting, and made it as a semi-finalist in talent search Fame Awards in 1998.

She found her footing in local TV dramas like Growing Up, and her first foray into theatre was in 2001, as a superintendent in Footsteps In The Night.

Growing up being conscious about money led her to educate her own children to do the same.

Ms Cheng, 44, says she took her older son Joshua, 17, from her first marriage, to a few investment talks when he was in primary school so that he would be introduced to ways of using money and the concept of saving.

"I also had a serious talk with him at the beginning of this year, only because he wanted his own ATM card. I told him this is what I've done, and told him that once he starts earning his own money, he's paying for these (insurance) policies from his own pocket," she adds with a laugh.

Ms Cheng is married to Mr Rama Chandran, 58, the founder-director of Act 3 Theatrics, where she is creative director. They have a six-year-old son, Jivan.

The Fly Entertainment artist hosts lifestyle series Domestic Goddess on Food For Life TV and will star in the futuristic docu-drama 2025 that will air on Channel 5 next year.Q: Are you a spender or saver?

I've always been a saver. When I had to raise my older son by myself, at the start of my career, I never had a period where I had a sum of money and felt that I could do whatever I wanted with it.

It was always that I had an obligation. In my growing-up years it was to my mum, to be respectful. Then came work and I had my son, so I had to start planning, budgeting and saving.

I save 10 per cent of what I have, if not more. Freelance work means there's not a steady stream of income coming in every month. In those months when I had a lot of work like hosting, singing at dinner and dances, endorsements or TV production, I'd immediately save half of (the income earned).

Q: How much do you charge to your credit cards every month?

I know some people don't like using credit cards because they can get traced, but for me it's like, "Just give me my statement, then I can track if I'm spending too much."

I'm a very disciplined spender so I've never come to a point where I owe money, because my philosophy is to not be in debt, and my credit card limit is $3,000. Monthly expenditure on credit cards is about $2,000, excluding groceries.

Q: What financial planning have you done for yourself?

I have a family, so it would be low-risk investments, and I have a defence strategy which means health, medical insurance for the whole family - that's where most of my savings go to.

I also have endowment policies. Although they don't give high rates of return, like 10 or 15 per cent. I'm risk-averse; my plans have always been long-term, to hedge against inflation, or enforced savings.Q: Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

I was brought up by my single mum, so in my head it was always drummed: "Never get yourself into debt."

I was placed under the care of various people. There was a caretaker's husband who had gambling problems, and people actually knocked on the door (asking for money).

My mum was an artist, she didn't get much support from my dad, and she put me and my brother through university. I also got to study in a boarding school in Switzerland. She really fought for things like this.

She took on a lot of work. She painted on weekends and would hold exhibitions. Her day jobs would be anything, from a manager in a Japanese journalist agency or travel agency; she held quite high posts, but those were still tough years. She'd take us to coffee houses like Shangri-La's, but we couldn't order drinks because they were very expensive. So we zoomed in on a particular dish like the banana split and had it as a treat.

Those were little luxuries. We weren't living miserly but at the same time we knew money was hard to come by.

It was really cute, another habit she instilled in me. When I was in primary school, she'd give me $1 for the week and always told me: "You must save 20 cents every day." She made me go to POSB to line up with my bag of coins and deposit the money.

Q: How did you get interested in investing?

When I realised I had to eke out a living for myself and my older boy, in 2004. I really had to start planning for him and myself then, before my husband was in the picture.

I was talking to people, friends, just to see how they managed their money. My interest in investment grew as I was introduced to the idea of making your money work for you.

I read voraciously on financial management in my early years and even now, because I believe it's important to be financially aware, especially for women. I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki.

With my husband now, it's nice to have someone to bounce ideas off and we're from the same "work hard and save" generation. We don't have all these get-rich-quick schemes.

Now when I read about finance, it's less about following this or that trend, but about reading a broad spectrum of financial advice. I read to be more informed about choices I could make. Suze Orman is one, I like her practicality, her old-school approach to money - don't spend more than you earn - the MoneySmart website, Money pages in The Straits Times and I talk to people who are financially savvier than me.Q: What property do you own?

My home in Dover. I used to want to have a home as an asset, so maybe two properties. I never wanted a landed property, but I thought it'd be nice to have a home as a form of investment.

The way the prices are in Singapore now, I'm just happy with the fact that I own a home with no mortgage and can spend the rest of the money that I have on travelling as well as creating memorable experiences for myself and my children's education.

Q: What's the most extravagant thing you have bought?

This sounds so shallow, but my special limited-edition Louis Vuitton wallet that I got in Perth. It's the most extravagant because do I actually need it? No. (laughs)

I don't buy branded things but I felt that it was time to buy a well-made wallet that would last me for the rest of my life. I even have my name embossed on it.

Q: What's your retirement plan?

I would have liked to retire at the age of 55, but I realised it's not very practical. When I use the word retire, I don't mean to sit back and wait for money to come in. I mean not having to hunt for work from a freelance perspective.

I will always love to act and teach but I want to continue doing this because I enjoy it, so maybe just work for life but not so hard.

Based on my calculations of requiring $5,000 a month to live comfortably from the age of 60 onwards, I think the most likely scenario is that I would need to work for a long time. Which is fine by me, though I would like to start working more for pleasure from the age of 60 onwards.Q: Home is now...

A five-room flat in Dover.

Q: I drive...

A Volkswagen Polo, which I got in 2010 when the COE (certificate of entitlement) was really low. It was a gift from my hubby for my 40th birthday.

Worst & best bets

Q: What is your worst investment?

Around 2004, I was interested in investing because of my family. So I bought a five-year unit trust, where the principal sum was 80 per cent protected. I put in $10,000. Five years later, the unit trust lost money. After deducting the sales charges and other fees, it went down to $7,000.

We also decided to take a chance by investing during the first two years of our marriage (in 2005 and 2006), and bought unit trusts through financial advisers. Thank God we were not badly burnt. Even though it was not much, it's money we wish we didn't lose. We decided then that endowment plans were the safest hedge against inflation.

I'm not so naive any more. When you want to invest your money, it's really easy to let someone take care of it, but you need to educate yourself so that you know what you're comfortable with.

Q: What is your best investment?

The money I spent on my education - a postgraduate degree in education - in 2011. It was a lot of money but it's slowly reaping returns. I gained skills I'm able to put to use in helping my company Act 3 Theatrics (which she joined in 2012) grow further.

While there needs to be some returns from the money that was used, it's also about how you can give back.

It sounds so cliched but money is not just about dollars and cents but the value you can add to your life and other people's lives, so I think it was worth spending the money.

I went to Australia to study and was very blessed that I didn't need to worry about accommodation because my family lives there.

The course cost me about $30,000, and including living expenses and everything else, the total cost added up to about $50,000, plus the opportunity cost of not being able to work.

rachaelb@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on August 10, 2014.
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