An Age Where Nothing Seems To Be Enough – A Translation

I decided to make a change today. Instead of publishing self-written content, I am going to translate an article that I recently read on Baidu (the Chinese equivalent of Google).

The article was not written by anyone famous. In fact, I don’t actually know who the author was. However I found it profoundly impactful.

Here we go. Please enjoy.

An Age Where Nothing Seems To Be Enough

How could it be? He didn’t look like a greasy middle-aged man at all?

This was my first reaction after meeting Henry, an old classmate of mine, at the school reunion after New Year. Unlike all the other contemporaries, Henry still kept a lean physique and a tailor-cut hairstyle typical of a professional businessman. He extruded confidence and a care-free attitude unimaginable to others of a similar age whenever he spoke.

And the rest of us?

Well, most of the men had beer bellies now. And the ladies? Some had arms the size of swim floats. Styles? Are you kidding me?

So what happened to Henry? We all wondered.

A few glasses later, we began to learn about Henry’s life journey: after spending 7 years as an administrative manager at a local state-owned enterprise, he decided to call it quits and focus on something for himself. He joined a wedding planning company. Despite knowing nothing about the industry, he worked from bottoms up and eventually launched a successful wedding planning business himself.

Now I don’t want to dwell too much on the sweat and toil he had to endure. I’m sure he had to experience his fair share (just like the rest of us). I want to focus on the foundation of his current state, his confidence and that is financial freedom.

I felt that acutely during the course of the dinner. The funny thing was that Henry hadn’t reached a state of extraordinary wealth yet. He was well-off, maybe affluent. However what he expressed the most was freedom. The control of his time. He spoke about the interchangeable periods of busyness and quietness merged as one, and how on a busy day he would work 18+ hours, hosting 3 different weddings. Then 2 days later he could take the whole family to Northern Europe or Tahiti for a relaxing holiday.

We felt nothing but envy at his freedom.

I remember one sentence he said at the end of the dinner vividly:

If you don’t dream of financial freedom when you are young, then you will never be financially free.

His words projected a familiar image in my head: I remember when we first graduated, we were all interns and the mere fact of landing a permanent contract warranted celebration. I was over the moon when I received my first pay cheque. Whenever the boss spoke about the future IPO of the company or I saw a small raise in my salary, my heart leapt into joy. I was so pleased with the financial stability my job offered.

Of course, I wanted to save more. I wanted to build up a nest egg, to invest it wisely so that it could pay me dividend in the years to come. However, reality quickly kicked in as I realised that it simply wasn’t achievable.

My bank balance was usually badly depleted at the end of every month. I began to accept that as a fact and that it would continue to be a fact for the foreseeable future. I then reassured myself: don’t worry, you are young, save slowly, work harder and you will be fine.

Then I had my first proper girlfriend. When she asked for an LV bag as her birthday present, I didn’t even know what it was until when I almost passed out after reading the price tag in the store.

After endless attempts to please my then-girlfriend, we were finally engaged. I was over the moon. I was ready to settle down and start the dream family life.

Yet life challenged me in unexpected ways.

In my first meeting with the future in-laws, the very first thing they said was that if I didn’t have a property or didn’t plan to buy a property in Tier 1 cities then I shouldn’t marry their daughter. Looking at my expenses, my payslip and then property adverts, I felt loneliness in this world for the very first time.

After five more years, I returned back to my home city and eventually managed to find my love and got married. Professionally I also became a middle manager and my salary stabilised. I got a mortgage, bought a flat and even had enough leftover for an entry-level car so that my wife no longer needed to take the bus to work. We felt financially secured and began to enjoy wearing the “nouveau middle class” label.

We finally felt stable. We didn’t want to make any major career changes, especially after the birth of our child, because we were scared that any changes would disrupt that sense of stability and security, leaving our precious dream in tatters.

More crucially, we were anaesthetised by our sense of self-satisfaction, because we felt our income level was enough. We had sufficient left over every month after mortgage and other living expenses for some discretionary spending. We could afford a holiday every year. We even had some money to dabble in the stock market.

Suddenly I felt financial freedom was within reach.

Until that day.

When I came home on a Tuesday, I saw my wife sitting on the sofa, staring aimlessly into the living room. She was clearly upset. After several attempts to comfort her, she eventually conceded the reason. She said that the couple next door had sent their child to a luxury private kindergarten where the hardwares were first class, all the teachers were fluent in English and they even hired expat foreign tutors.

The next day I secretly called them to inquire the fees and realised that even if I didn’t eat or drink for a year, my salary still would be insufficient to cover that.

Things took a turn for the worse as I got home that day because my wife’s complaint clearly was not over. She brought out a host of children who were students there and how wealthy, educated and /or well-networked their families were and how public kindergartens could never offer our child any of that.

Feeling guilty, frustrated and exasperated, I bit my tongue, maxed out on my credit card and managed to send my child into that private kindergartens.

And then my child came home and asked a host of questions that we couldn’t find answers to.

  • Why could James get the latest and Best toys?
  • Why did Zoe get that designer school bag?
  • How come Michael could spend time at Disneyland during the holiday whereas we only went to our local park?

We felt embarrassed. We had created this problem for ourselves! So we told him to be good, be frugal and don’t compare with his classmates.

We finally realised that we were not even close to achieving financial freedoms. What we had before was simply a perception, as we had never taken many unexpected but real expenses into account.

A few years passed by and with each passing day our parents began to age. With ageing came increased medical expenses.

That’s when I noticed Lisa and his husband John.

At the end of the dinner, most of us either drove home or called Didi (Uber-equivalent in China), except for Lisa and her husband John, who took a bus in the rain.

I was initially taken aback because they both worked in a good state-owned enterprise and earned decent salaries. Why such frugality? I then recalled them not saying a word during the dinner as if something was bothering them deeply.

Afterwards, I learned that Lisa’s mother was ill, seriously ill. She’d been hospitalised for almost a year and had to be transferred to the county hospital from the local village one, which inevitably pushed up the already high medical expenditure. As a result, they had to sell their cars and downsize to a much smaller flat.

It was at that point that I really started to appreciate the freedom and confidence enjoyed by Henry.

Nobody wanted the worst to happen but when they did strike, often money could solve most of the issues on hand.

This is the crisis of the nouveau middle class. We may seemingly be at a financially comfortable position, however, we may not realise the potentially endless list of expenditure around the corner, ready to confront us at any moment.

When we were young, we concentrated on living our own lives well, whilst ignoring the need to save and invest, both financially and personally. Our motto was to “live in the moment” whilst remaining completely oblivious to the fact that our ageing parents and budding babies would one day be completely dependent on us.

Only when we started to appreciate the importance of being the family breadwinner did we realise the vitality of financial freedom and started to regret our previous choices:

  • Why did I crave for stability when there was a better opportunity available?
  • Why did I crave for familiarity by betting my career on some middle managers above me?
  • Why did I waste time on random shit whilst I could have focused on achieving financial freedom?

Perhaps you are on the same boat.

That’s OK. The mere fact that you are reading this article means you have realised the importance of pursuing financial freedom.

It is time to stop spending time with friends whose sole purpose is to provide company at restaurants and pubs. It’s time to dedicate these precious hours to invest in yourself and achieve a better self because our time is changing. You may be the nouveau middle-class today however you might realise one day that you had been left behind.

Perhaps you are still young and have not realised what the future may bring.

However remember this: the younger you realise financial freedom, the better your overall well-being will become.

Right now what Henry said to us resonated vividly in my mind: if you didn’t reach financial freedom when you were young then you would never be financially free.

Indeed, it is very easy for a middle-aged man to find a sense of security. Yet it’s even easier for him to lose that security. The only way to be able to provide lasting security for yourself and your beloved ones would be to achieve financial freedom.