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‘Saying No to Unnecessary Things’: Key to A Migrant Worker’s Astute Financial Management

Augustus T. Añonuevo

Siti Nur Fadilah, 39 years of age, married to a fellow Indonesian national with two children, lives and works as a domestic helper in Kuala Lumpur. In 2003, Siti at a young age of 14 years left Jakarta, Indonesia to work in Malaysia. She went against the wishes of her mother and grandmother who wanted her to pursue Islamic studies and went with her friends to live and work in Malaysia.

Siti’s early years as a migrant were difficult, to say the least. Victimized by illegal recruitment, Siti endured hard work, measly play and at times work without pay and had to move from one employer to another for seven years. In 2010, Siti after running away from her previous employer, finally found a good employer and since then gained a working permit in Malaysia. Later, after her first marriage, she met her current husband and continuously seek a better life for her family in Malaysia.

In search for ways to manage their family finances well, Siti attended in 2022 the Reintegration and Financial Planning Training in Kuala Lumpur. The financial literacy training was conducted by Pertimig, an organization of Indonesian migrant worker-financial literacy advocates in Malaysia who were trained as financial literacy trainers. They were trained as trainers by Atikha, an NGO in the Philippines, through the Safe and Fair Project: Realizing Women Migrant Workers’ Rights and Opportunities in ASEAN Region Programme, with funding from the European Union, led by the ILO with UN Women in collaboration with UNODC. The trainings sought to empower Indonesian and Filipino migrant women workers in Malaysia and Singapore by capacitating them to manage their finances and handle familial concerns.

Siti admitted that before the training, she did not know how to manage her money. She spent a lot for shopping for what she described as ‘non-sense things’ (not important things or not necessary things). She shared that she bought new pairs of shoes despite having no need for them. She bought dresses despite having many still in her closet. She was into mindless shopping and shared that she could get stuck in a store and could not stop herself from buying. Her propensity to buy things that she did not really need came to a full stop after she attended the Reintegration and Financial Planning Training.

Siti summed up what she learned from the training: one, how to manage her finances better and two, how to say No to incessant demands of her relatives. She shared: “What did I learn from the financial literacy training? What I learned is to manage money well. I learned not to buy things that are not important. How did I do it? I applied the envelop method of budgeting taught to us in the training. From my monthly earnings, I allocate amounts of money in different envelopes for the various monthly expenses like school needs, electricity bill, house rent, and allowances of my mother, daughter and son. Immediately after getting my pay, I put budgeted amounts to the different envelopes. In the past, it was so easy for me to spend the money. Having no budget at all, at the end of the month, I had no money. When I learned how to manage money using the envelope method, I was very happy because I learned how to manage my earnings and always ended up with monthly savings.” Asked on how she ended up with some savings every month and what she does with her savings, she explained: “This is what I do. For example, for electric bill, I allocate RM100 per month. But normally, I do not spend RM100 for my monthly electric bill; most of the time, only RM80 or RM70. The money saved every month remains in the envelope. I do not spend it. I regard the money as spare money. After three or six months, I put all the spare money in my electricity envelope and other envelopes to the emergency envelope. Before, I also spend the money that my son receives from relatives and friends. Now, I have a separate envelope for the money that my son receives. That’s his money and should be spent for his school and other needs. I also control myself in buying things. For example, I want to buy clothes worth RM100. If I do not have that spare money to buy the clothes, then I will not buy them. If I saved enough, then I will buy the clothes. If I saved more, I will keep the rest. We must have direction and control not to buy things that are not necessary.” Interestingly, Siti has separate envelopes intended for her ‘wants’: purchase of a car, a motorcycle and gold. They remain without any money because Siti reckoned that she must have more money for emergencies before spending for her ‘wants’. Until she has enough for emergencies (a need), only then, would she start putting money on her ‘wants’.

Siti involved her husband, Ady, in managing their finances and savings plan. She said: “Before the training, no matter how much money we earned, my husband and I, felt that it was always not enough. My husband works as a contractor and is earning. I also work but we did not know then, where our earnings went.” Siti convinced Ady for them to apply the envelope method in managing their finances. At first, Ady hesitated but afterwards he went along because he realized that they started accumulating savings. Siti further convinced Ady for them to open a joint bank account which is dedicated for savings to be used for their future investments. What are saved from their own personal money are deposited in the joint bank account.

Siti revealed that before the training, she always says Yes to the monetary pleas of her mother, sister and daughter in Indonesia. She revealed that she could not say No especially to her mother. Whenever, her mother asked for money, she would immediately transfer money to Indonesia. She would even borrow money from her employer and friends when she did not have the money that her mother asked for. She realized after the training that always saying Yes had to stop and she had to start saying No. She said: “I learned to say No to unimportant things. For example, when my mom is sick, that is important and I need to send her money and even pay in full her medical bills. But if my Mom just want to buy things or want to go for holiday or parties, then I will say No. I also learned to say No and still help my Mom and other relatives. For example, when my Mom asks for RM1,000 and I have that kind of extra money, I tell her that I do not have RM1,000 but I give her RM300 instead. And I save the extra RM700 for her emergency needs. That way, I do not give in fully to her demand but still help her and save for her future needs.”

Siti said that it was difficult at first to say No especially to her Mom. She revealed that overwhelmed by guilt, she had sleepless nights over it. She was also hurt by nasty and angry comments hurled against her when she started to say No to her relatives’ incessant monetary demands. But she was glad that she remained steadfast because eventually her mother, sister and daughter understood why she had to stop saying Yes all the time to their pleas. She further shared: “I trained them. I taught my mother how to manage her money and I see positive results. My mother now can buy what she wants from her own money.” Saying No to unnecessary demands of relatives to Siti is part and parcel of astute financial management. She believed that if migrant workers do not start to stay No to unreasonable demands of their relatives in their home countries, they will not be able to save substantial amounts of money and will be unable to secure their own family’s future. Migrant workers must change the mindset of their relatives—that they, migrants, are willing to help but they also must also secure their own future. If migrants always say Yes, Siti added, migrants are not helping their relatives because they are nurturing dependents who could not stand on their own feet and unable to earn for their needs.

Siti plans to go back to and settle with her family in Indonesia. But she knows that they must prepare well if they intend to return to their homeland permanently. She bared her plans: “First, we must save more and be more financially stable. Second, we should learn how to run and manage well the grocery store we started in Jakarta which is currently operated by my daughter. We have to make it grow and become profitable.” Siti has her eyes on coming home for good in Indonesia. Siti advises her fellow migrant women workers: “If you always say Yes to your relatives back home, you will end up not saving a single cent. No matter how many years, you stay in Malaysia, if you do not say No, you will have nothing. If you do not know how to manage your money, no matter how much money you earn, money will never be enough.”