Can Singaporeans survive on a $2,000 a month salary?

I came across the following post that got me thinking how much does one need to survive in modern day Singapore:

The CIMB Cost of Living survey suggests that 87% of households can save between 20-50% of their monthly income and are not really struggling. It suggests that only 13% of households are struggling. This report is in line with the MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore) 2013 Financial Stability Report. The bottom-line in both: An overwhelming majority of Singaporeans are not overstretched, cost of living is manageable and they are not on the brink of hardship.

I find this very much at odds to what I have observed and been told by the people I meet. Is it possible that I have some sort of ‘Indian Sign’ on my head, because I only seem to be meeting this 13%, and almost never the majority 87%? Or is this another example of the type of inaccurate data that the Govt conveniently uses to dictate policy? It’s very easy to look only at the data and statistics and govern according to it. It’s a lot harder work to explore and investigate further and get a more accurate picture on the ground. I am no economist but I do know what is necessary for the common man to get by in Singapore.

As such I’ve reached a figure of $2,000 a month for a single person (male or female) to survive without having to overstretch and struggle. I said single, not married or married with kids. The single person is the lowest common denominator. If circumstances were to change for him or her, I believe the $2,000 will also not be sufficient. So let’s examine how much a single person earning $2,000 spends in order to survive. I’ll start by using very conservative figures – using a man (I think women need to spend more), who’s single and lives with his parents, and say has 1 other sibling also living in the family home. His $2k is spent on the following:

Salary – $2,000
Less 20% CPF
New Balance: $1,600

Transport: $5 a day for work = $100
Meals: 2 meals (during work) x 20 days @ $10 a day = $400
Handphone @ $2 a day = $60
New Balance: $1,040

Since he’s living in the family home, he’ll have to contribute a bit. So he pays:
$200 to his mother for meals, etc
$100 to pay for 1 of the utility bills.
New Balance: $740

So based on this very conservative figures, he should have around $700 left to get by for the month. But we must add a few more very obvious missing details. Since it’s only calculated on him working a 5 day week job, you cannot expect him not to go out or do something on the weekends, plus he still needs to eat. Furthermore the meal cost above does not include eating dinner outside, rather eating at home after every work day.

8 weekend meals at $15: $120
Transport for 8 weekends at $8: $64
New Balance: $556

So there you have it: a person earning $2,000 can save over or nearly $500 a month, well within the figures given by CIMB and MAS. So how can people say that they are struggling? Nonsense isn’t it? Yes these figures are accurate, but only if everyone lives life this simply under some sort of North Korean Communist rule. A young man goes to work, comes home after work, always uses public transport for his travels and does not do anything else.

But is this the life of an ordinary Singaporean? Do all parents cook meals for their children every single work day? Should every single person stay indoors all the time and have no avenues for entertainment? Going back to my figures to add a little more:

Transport: How many times a month do you feel so tired after work, and cannot bear the anguish of fighting your way home from crowds on trains and buses? Or if he’s late for work? Say this person does it 2 or 3x a month (another minimum). He needs to spend another $40 on taxi fares.

Food: Does he always spend just $10, eating the same meals, say ‘Economical Rice’ or Chicken Rice? Surely not, he will spend more on some days, it’s only normal to do so. If we average it at an extra $3 per work day, that’s another $60. And say his mother doesn’t cook every work day, he needs to spend say another $6 per week on dinner, so another $24.
New balance: $556 – $40 – $60 – $24 = $432.

This $432 is still conservative, we are talking of a man who doesn’t have any entertainment. No going to Clark Quay, no dining in fancy restaurants and no girlfriend even. And we are talking of just $5 for travelling to work. It can be much more depending on how far he needs to travel. And this is living with parents, who provide him meals and him giving just $200. If they don’t, his meals will cost far more, in fact $10 I quoted, is usually not enough for 2 proper meals outside in coffee-shops or hawker centres.

If you take the normal unmarried average working man, that balance of $432 will evaporate easily. He probably has to pay more to use his computer or if he wants to watch cable TV. He may have to pay more for the family bills. He may fall sick and need to see the doctor. He may need to bring his parents out for normal stuff like going to the temple, church, visiting relatives and marketing. All these things add up. And we have not even talked of him having a girlfriend. If this was the average woman, we need to consider things she needs to do for her physical maintenance – hairdressers and some basic shopping. I haven’t even figured in going out with a girlfriend or friends, or some shopping for personal grooming or having to attend birthday parties and weddings.

For sure the $2,000 earning average man is not living in total hardship, but he’s not living like a Duke either. It might just be enough, just under or just over depending on lifestyle. But consider this – How many young adults are earning $2,000 a month? Especially with influx of foreign workers taking away middle management jobs. And this $2,000 man is single and living with parents. What happens if he’s married or living on his own? Or married with kids? Say his wife also somehow manages to earn $2,000, will the $4,000 be enough to run the family? If the $2,000 man cannot save even 10% of his salary, can a married man do so?

We are talking here of their combined CPF contributions being enough to pay for their flat. What if it’s insufficient? What about kids? What if their parents also need support? Is $2,000 enough? The CIMB survey and MAS reports look very rosy but how accurate is it?

If the Govt doesn’t bring down housing prices and does nothing to stop foreigners eating away at middle class jobs, sooner or later even the $2,000 average single man will not be able to cope. Say what they want and come out with whatever statistics, the stark reality is that many Singaporeans are teetering on the verge of hardship. Unless of course they want us to live a North Korean type of lifestyle – work and slog until the day you die.

Sir Nelspruit

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