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How Singapore artiste Benjamin Kheng went from freelancer to business owner

Benjamin Kheng had to learn the basics of saving and making his money grow from scratch. He shares how he did it.

Singapore Artiste Benjamin Kheng.
Artiste Benjamin Kheng. (PHOTO: Endowus)

By Prince Lee

When he was in his 20s, local multi-hyphenate artist Benjamin Kheng had an unstable income as a freelancer and juggled many different jobs – dabbling as a part-time radio DJ, singing in pubs, and teaching literature and drama – to make ends meet.

While Kheng, now 32, took a cautionary approach to his finances, such as making sure he didn't spend beyond his means, he faced barriers when he wanted to buy a home after getting married. Kheng told Yahoo Finance Singapore, "Being a freelancer meant 'conversations with the bank' about not having a stable monthly income (that would have more easily secured a home loan)."

Kheng also couldn't pursue more long-term business opportunities, such as starting his own company.

He decided he had to get smarter about the savings and investment.

Just as he started to read up more about financial literacy, Singapore-based investment platform Endowus approached Kheng to explore a potential collaboration, with him being one of its ambassadors. Kheng was at the time keen to kickstart his financial journey and have in-depth discussions about his wealth goals and investment plans.

One of the earliest pieces of advice Endowus chief executive Gregory Van gave to Kheng was to "learn to make his money work" for him. But in order to learn, Kheng shared that he had to place his ego and pride aside.

Get financially literate

"I had to ask experts like Greg to break it down to the basics and explain it simply to me like ELI5 (slang for 'Explain Like I'm 5'). I learnt that it is okay to not know. I had to ask silly questions, humble myself, and figure it out," Kheng recalled.

This included learning what certain financial terminologies were (for example, dividend stocks versus growth stocks), managing emergency funds and portioning out a right amount to invest, understanding valuations and investing horizons, as well as the breaking down of common myths (for instance, high risk equals high returns).

His financial literacy efforts have paid off, with Kheng sharing that he is in a "stable financial situation" currently – Kheng said he can be more accountable for where his money is going overall.

He added, "I now have an educated foresight into my short- to long-term future and am better equipped to make decisions that feel scary in the interim but make sense in the long run.

Case in point: though late to the savings and investment game, Kheng is now a co-founder of Charle King, a boutique video production company, which he started with creative director Ted Charles.

Converting passion into a liveable wage

These days, with financial freedom in the bag, Kheng is able to take more calculated risks, and invest his hard-earned money into side projects that he is passionate about, such as the BenZi project, and a local music-comedy series with Annette Lee, a singer-songwriter who shot to fame as a content creator for local digital content site SGAG.

He shared, “For the first season, Annette and I put out four songs, but we knew that we wouldn't see immediate returns as we had no proof of concept. Music videos are costly and not easy to do, but we did see the value in creating content for a local market, where our USP (unique selling point) was music-comedy."

Fortunately, even before the first season wrapped up, Kheng and Lee were able to secure funding, which meant that season two was fully funded through private investments and government grants.

"While not every project is so blessed, this calculated risk would not have been possible to make when I was in my mid-20s and risk-averse," he said.

And although side projects with Lee, or co-founding Charle King, may not reap "big returns financially", Kheng is happy where he is, knowing he can continue what he loves doing – creating content, storytelling, learn how to direct, and work with different brands and clients to bring out a vision – without worrying too much about finances

"I think that learning how to translate your passion into a career without losing your soul is also very important," he opined.

When asked if being more well-known these days make being a freelancer easier, Kheng chuckled and said, "I think it's a misnomer. The market is so volatile, so it's important for us to remember to save up for a rainy day."

It pays to start early

One regret that Kheng has was not seeking financial literacy at the start of his career.

Offering a piece of advice to young adults who just started working, Kheng said, "If it's within your means, adopting a simple principle like the 50/30/20 rule after you've just graduated and are embarking on your career will go a long way."

This was something Kheng wished his younger self knew – how to apply the 50/30/20 principle, where with every 100 per cent of gross income, 50 goes to fixed costs like utilities and rent, 30 goes into non-essentials like eating out and watching movies, while the final 20 goes into investments and savings.

Another piece of advice Kheng would have shared with his younger self was the need to instill good financial practices such as paying one's credit card bills on time, understanding one's expenditure habits, and making a concerted effort to set some money aside every month.

And while he does not claim to be a financial expert, Kheng is understands how finances ebb and flow in tune with the volatile creative industry.

For those who choose to freelance, Kheng offered, "Being a freelancer is like rock climbing without a harness. You don't really know what your next steps are. But if you diversify your assets, there are many ways to stay abreast and stay afloat."

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