From near bankruptcy to helping kids grow money

Chris Lee

From the age of four, Chris Lee helped her father sell ais kacang and drinks via his tricycle in Ipoh.

“If it rained or there was a strong wind, we would have trouble keeping the tricycle in place,” recalls Lee, 44.

“If business was bad, we had to go without meals.

“My dad never believed in taking loans and we worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week as it was his dream to buy a house. We did not have time to indulge.”

The years of scrounging and saving every sen meant she never could enjoy life but that changed when she got her first job in sales and with it … credit cards.

She started splurging, buying stuff she was denied while growing up but before too long, she was broke and facing bankruptcy – at 21!

This is a common mistake many youths often make.

Last December, the Insolvency Department revealed Malaysians aged between 25 and 44 formed the biggest group classified as bankrupt.

They constituted almost 60 per cent of the 94,408 cases reported from 2013 to August 2017.

“I spent without realising the consequences. Before too long I owed over RM18,000. I was paying the minimum amount and the interest kept snowballing,” says Lee, an aerobics instructor and owner of a MoneyTree Academy in Kota Kemuning.

“I tightened my belt over the next two years to settle the debts. I literally survived on bread, water and instant noodles.”

But that harsh lesson made her stronger and she slowly learned how to manage her money.

“As my daughter Megane Chan was growing up, I looked for programmes or workshops which could enhance her living skills such as cooking or robotics but never thought about financial literacy.

“I thought I was doing all the right things until I came across the MoneyTree programme three years ago.

“It opened my eyes by showing me I could do more for her.”

So, what is MoneyTree?

It is a Financial Literacy Programme (FliP) that revolves around increasing awareness of financial literacy among youth and getting parents to play an active role in their child’s financial literacy education.

Children as young as six are taught the value of money and the importance of saving through programmes based on a learn-through-play approach that includes play money, fun activities, simulations and quick quizzes.

Money Tree
Children keeping their finances in check during a Money Tree programme.

“When I enrolled Megane in the programme, I was astounded by the change in her outlook after only three months.

“She would question me if I spent too much on a handbag or shoes and urged me to cut back.”

Lee soon got her friends to enrol their children in the programme – with remarkable results.

“I then decided to open an academy to preach this message.

“We need children to understand the value of money and not simply buy the best or most expensive stuff which could lead to bankruptcy,” says Lee, who has a diploma in electrical engineering.

“Financial literacy is something you need from the time you are born until you die. It sounds harsh but that’s the truth.

“Sadly, our education system does not incorporate this valuable lesson and if I ever have the opportunity to meet our new education minister, I would ask him to include financial literacy in the syllabus.

She says Singapore has already done so.

In Malaysia, international and private schools are starting to include financial planning including Global Oak Tree Scholars (GOTS).

The newly established school in Elmina East, Shah Alam promises to provide its students a combination of experiential learning, perspectives and culture in all lessons.

One of the ways it does this is through its FinancialSmart programme which is embedded into its curriculum with the aim of developing savvy entrepreneurs by complementing academic achievement with financial literacy.

“The kids at GOTS will definitely grow up to understand money needs to work for them,” says Chithra Nair, who teaches the subject in GOTS.

“I would have been quite a rich person today if I had known these things when I was younger!

“Our FinancialSmart programme teaches them to first put aside whatever money they earn before spending.”