Geoarbitrage, Housing, Singapore

Singapore to Oklahoma: How I started my path to FI by choosing ‘flyover country’

My pursuit of financial independence began in an unlikely place. I remember the first time I realized things were going to be expensive. I had just landed with two suitcases in Singapore, where I would be living for a few years. The financial outlook in the glitzy, SE Asian island was spendy.

Over the past few years, Singapore has consistently been at the top of the most expensive cities in the world. Many people travel through Singapore and give it glowing tourist reviews, which it rightfully deserves. You’ll not find a cleaner, safer large city in the world. But few realize the true cost of calling it home.

Singapore is a tiny city-state – an island of only ~180 square miles with more than 5 million people. It’s home to an extraordinary number of millionaires, and wealth is displayed across the city in almost every facet of life, often in grandiose fashion. Being such a small place, there’s nowhere to escape the cost of living – particularly housing. There’s no forgotten ‘flyover country.’ As I tried to adjust to my new lifestyle there, I kept coming back to one realization: choice. How having the option to live in a cheaper place can radically transform your financial future. And how having no choice can cost you a ton of money.

Being from the Midwest, we don’t realize things are so cheap (my childhood home cost $60,000 in the 1990s) until we travel elsewhere. Many households survive on single incomes in the Midwest. When we talk of square footage prices, it’s consistently under $100. For all the flack that Middle America gets (yes, it’s very flat, dull and boring) life is undeniably affordable.

This built-in notion of affordability smacked up against my $1,200/month Singapore rent payment for a 300-square-foot bedroom in an apartment I shared with my wife and 10 other strangers (pro tip to sharing an apartment with an army: if the clothes washer is not in use – jump on it!).

While I was able to travel extensively, eat the best food in my life and ultimately meet my wife in Singapore, paying the bills sucked. But it gave me an invaluable lesson in geo-arbitrage and choosing the less-traveled path to save money. It taught me a critical lesson in financial independence: never accept things that steal from your net worth as normal.

I was constantly amazed how many people would simply accept how expensive things were. At one point a few months into my Singapore life, one of my good friends lost his job. His wife was still working but the layoff shocked them into a new reality. They had been paying $4,000/month for an amazing apartment overlooking the ocean with a spectacular view of the city. We watched New Year fireworks and National Day festivities from their balcony on the 35th floor. But convinced they could pay less, they were able to find a very comfortable apartment in another part of town that comfortably met all their needs for half the price. While it lacked the wow factor, an unfortunate job loss actually set them on a better financial path they might never considered.

At first, I thought this mentality was a fluke and largely wrote it off as a localized phenomenon. But, as I traveled more and eventually moved back to Oklahoma, I realized it was universal. People of all stripes consistently pay for things that chip away at their cost of living without question.

I currently live near Oklahoma City, which has gone through somewhat of a renaissance over the past decade through solid government redevelopment measures. I’m amazed that houses in one area of town get snapped up in hours for a premium while a VERY SHORT drive south across the river there are houses for 75% less. A distance of one mile separates these homes in many cases. If you value your time more than money, you quickly realize this is a bad way to order your life. How much more time will you have to work for that house one mile away? In many cases it’s years and years. This seems ludicrous if your goal is financial freedom, especially when the cheaper house grants you almost no difference in proximity to work and life activities in the city.

When my wife and I moved back to the US, we weighed our options where to live. When I moved to Singapore in 2010, I thought I would never call Oklahoma home again. But after experiencing the financial fatigue of big city life, one of the main reasons we chose Oklahoma was the cost of living and our ability to save. This decision is a complex one for many people, but ultimately living in a less flashy place was worth it to us (See also – family nearby and free babysitting!). It has given us financial options we would never have in other places.

Life is all about choice. Identifying areas that society has told us ‘this is normal’ then questioning how you can do it cheaper, with minimal loss of quality of life. These kinds of decisions are all around us – beyond just where we live. The most important thing is to remember we have a say in making these financial decisions! There are massive financial implications if we don’t.

How have you found ways to lower your cost of living? Or to minimize costs in other ways? Have these decisions put you outside the mainstream?

 

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