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Learning Cantonese and learning investing? Same difference

Image of a tea ceremony

This article on learning Cantonese and investing comes courtesy of Budgets and Beverages from Team Monevator. Check back every Monday for more fresh perspectives on personal finance and investing from the Team.

‘Yam Yam Tsaa?’

‘Hawa, hawa’.

This has become my favourite phrase when I visit my in-laws. Phonetically written, it means ‘Cup of tea?’ with my response being ‘Yes. Yes.’

They’re Chinese you see, and they speak Cantonese. I don’t. But as I’m on a constant search for where the next hot beverage is going to come from, I had to learn the essentials.

And learning the essentials has led me to trying to learn the language completely, enrolling on a ten-week beginner Cantonese course.

(Spoiler alert: It’s a really hard language to learn.)

Learning Cantonese and investing

Slowly and surely, I’m beginning to pick things up.

Every Thursday evening, I arrive at my Cantonese class (online of course) and I listen, read and practice. In really basic terms, I’m starting to see progress.

The same can also be said about my investing portfolio.

I’m in the early days with that, too.

On reflection, it appears Cantonese isn’t the only language I’m trying to learn.

The world of personal finance is completely new to me. There’s new phrases to learn, new voices to listen to, and new ideas to understand.

Six months ago, I had no idea about compound interest, low-cost broad-based index funds, or the world of financial independence.

But on one miserable afternoon in Manchester, with a hot cup of tea my only source of any warmth, I googled ‘how to retire early?’

And I plunged so deep into the rabbit hole of financial independence, that my beverage went cold.

Just kidding. I’d never allow that to happen.

The world of financial independence

Just like with Cantonese, I began to listen, read, and learn.

And just like with Cantonese, I quickly began to realise there is plenty of information to take on board with investing.

So I went back to basics and started with the essentials.

For me, that was reading JL Collins’ book The Simple Path To Wealth. Original right?

But it worked. I began to understand the basic concept of index investing, ETFs, and the power of ‘buy and hold.’ The last being a useful lesson to learn during a global pandemic.

Enthused, excited, and energised, I wanted to learn more. And herein lies my next lesson learnt.

Ask for help

As you’ve probably gathered, my partner is Chinese. She speaks Cantonese fluently and communicates with her family in this language, even in my company. No exceptions are made on my behalf.

Side note, this was also the case when I went to Hong Kong a couple of years ago. After many months apart, my partner and her extended family caught up on each other’s lives, whilst I hoovered up as much dim sum as possible. That and green tea of course. By the end of the trip, I weighed a lot more but I was VERY refreshed.

Anyway, I digress.

Despite hearing Cantonese in my life daily, I never asked for help. I’d shut myself away, trying to learn it secretly, whilst dreaming of the day I suddenly interrupted my partner’s family conversation by joining in with Cantonese.

Their faces would be a picture! Oh how we’d laugh!

Realistically, this was never going to happen.

Until I asked for help. I not only invested in myself with an educational course, but I told my partner and her family about my intentions. Surprise, surprise, I’ve learnt more in four weeks than I did in the previous four years of sporadically and secretly trying to learn it on my own.

Again, the same can be said about investing.

With my Vanguard account open and my first deposit made, I imagined the moment of handing in my notice and walking into my new future.

‘Where are you going to?’

‘Nowhere, I’m retiring early.’

What a moment that would be!

Except, in the first month, my index fund went down. And down. And down again. Had I withdrawn, I’d have lost a decent sum of money. With ‘buy and hold!’ ringing in my ears, I left it alone. Thank goodness I did.

But it was a lesson. I needed to learn more.

So I asked for help.

That came via books, podcasts, and reading blogs. Genuinely, a lot of the help I got was from this website. And they haven’t even paid me to say that. Although they have sent me a box of PG Tips, so read into that what you wish.

There’s plenty of help out there, in a medium that serves you best.

As a helping hand, this is a good place to start.

Small steps lead to momentum

The thing is, asking for help initially has led me to learning more, meeting new people and now, writing my first blog for Monevator.

Honestly, it feels a bit surreal.

Six months ago, I had no idea about any of this. Now, I’m fortunate enough to be writing about something that I feel really passionate about.

No longer am I interested in keeping it a secret either. I want to play my part in helping others start their journey too.

Although here’s the disclaimer: I’m still learning the essentials.

The lightbulb moment

Even that can feel like a pretty big place to start. But the point is starting. Because once you start learning, it’s hard to find the brakes.

Dave Ramsey (a big player in the financial independence world) speaks about snowball momentum when it comes to paying off debt.

The idea that you pay off your smallest debt first, and once complete, you move those payments to the next largest debt, before rolling that into your next debt, and so on and so forth. With each debt paid off, your debt-clearing payments will become bigger, so the next debt gets paid off faster. You’ll gain momentum and see progress.

For me, this concept doesn’t only apply to debt.

Whether it was paying for my course or reading my first personal finance book, I got the ball rolling. Now momentum is gathering pace.

Why? Because I’ve had my lightbulb moment. In fact, I’ve had a fair few of them. That moment when something clicks, when you understand it, when you feel yourself gain knowledge. It’s a wonderful release of endorphins.

Last month, I heard my partner chatting to her dad and I understood a handful of words. It was a brilliantly reassuring moment. Sure, it was a half-hour conversation, but let’s not run before we can walk.

I also recently introduced my sister to low-cost broad based index funds. When she asked me why she couldn’t just put her life savings into Costa, Starbucks, and Pret a Manger (I’m not the only beverage-addict in the family), I explained the importance of diversification and why it’s vital to have an equity/bonds balance that suits her tolerance for risk and volatility.

I’ve just re-read that last sentence. It’s laughable that I can even put those words in that order. Six months ago, I had no idea about any of that. But this emphasises my point.

You don’t need to make a big statement. You don’t need to set unrealistic targets. The beauty about learning how to manage your money is that there is no finish line. And that’s not a bad thing. You can go as far down this road as you wish, at your own pace, having as many lightbulb moments as you want. Just make sure you get off the start line.

I’m not going to be fluent in Cantonese by the end of this year. I won’t be fluent by this time next year. My children will probably be able to speak it better than me.

But I know, that as long as I keep reading, listening and practicing, then I’ll get better and I’ll gain more knowledge.

The same applies to my financial independence journey.

The world of financial independence is huge. But please don’t be overwhelmed. Together, we can just start by learning the essentials – and flick on some lights as we go.

As long as we flick the kettle on, too. Although I have no idea how to say that in Cantonese!

In time you will be able to see all Budgets and Beverages’ articles in his dedicated archive.

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • 1 Chiny May 31, 2021, 10:36 am

    Interesting comparison and certainly works on some levels. However, my experience, from learning Spanish and watching others do the same, is you need an pressing reason to learn, over-riding all problems. For investing, it appears to be FIRE but for learning Cantonese ? Just asking for tea is not enough but being able to murmur sweet nothings to your loved one in her own language, would be.

    ¡Buena suerte!

  • 2 NewInvestor May 31, 2021, 10:50 am

    Thank you for article and welcome. Great to hear from a new traveller on the path. In keeping with this site’s nomenclature, are you The Learner?

    I concur with your reflection “that there is no finish line…You can go as far down this road as you wish, at your own pace.” The technical level of some of the comments on Monevator can be quite daunting at times and it would be easy to find oneself worrying about US vs non-US equities based on CAPE, whether bond prices are vulnerable to interest rate rises in the near term, and so on. As someone who is still fairly new to investing (two years now), rightly or not I’m learning to ignore this noise and just keep plodding on.

  • 3 Max May 31, 2021, 11:34 am

    Excellent first post!
    I too have been down the rabbit hole – first through this blog in 2013. Since then my snowball has been growing albeit on a low salary.

    I recently went to a FI meetup (online) and then followed that up with a meeting with one of the other attendees (there are real living breathing people who think the same way!)

    I love reading listening and talking about all things investing. I’d be interested to hear thoughts from other readers- Do you think certain people are wired up to be interested in money/finance?

  • 4 Andrew Preston May 31, 2021, 12:24 pm

    I discovered Dave Ramsay a couple of years ago. Found what he said very refreshing and useful, with some provisos.

    1. His emphasis is on investing in mutual funds with a long ( 10 year ) record of good performance, in excess of 12% pa. Little reference to ETF’s, or index funds.

    2. His modus operandi appears to be investing in funds, and then periodically selling/drawing down investments to purchase real estate. He has little/nothing, that I noticed, to say about long term investing, and holding.

    3. The above 2 stock market investment methods look to me like they would need the employ of dedicated financial advisers. Ramsey does that.

    4. His reference points are all American, and he’s arch Republican. And pretty much blind to other philosophies.

    Me.. ?

    I earned quite a lot of money as a freelance programmer in the 1980’s. I don’t come from a family that knew anything at all about stock markets. Most of the literature that I found then was about investing in individual stocks, funds or investment trusts. Financial advisers then, as now, didn’t seem interested in anyone with less than £250,000. I was doing pretty well, but not that well, so I was kind of on my own. I invested in shares, with little more than the fact that I liked the company name, or I used their products.
    I remember some of the names now. Metal Closures ( bottle tops ).., BSR International ( British Sound Recording ( aka BSR record turntables ).., becomes BSR International.., becomes Astec BSR ( power supplies ).., gets eaten up by bigger outfit, Emerson Electric, in the late 90’s.

    So anyway, come Monday, October 19, 1987, I was on a gliding course in Yorkshire. I heard on the news that something was happening on the stock market. It was crashing. I eventually got to a phone, but the brokers were deluged. I lost about £30,000 when over succeeding months I gradually disposed of my shares, thoroughly disenchanted with stock markets, and the system that seemed to me to be a system for rich people, and insiders.

    I still earned well for several years after that, was very averse to debt, but liked expensive cars. Porsche 911’s are, well, there is no other.

    So anyway, come the mid 90’s I was skint. And come a couple of years ago, I found Dave Ramsey. I found his advice on budgeting very useful.
    Also…, something he said about debts. Most mainstream financial advice on paying off debt says to pick your debt with the highest interest rate, and pay that down first. Ramsey,as the OP notes , advises to start with the smallest debt, as doing so creates a sense of achievement, and builds confidence. As Ramsey puts it…. “… doing what works, rather than what is mathematically correct….”.

    On a very low income, I now budget ruthlessly, and invest in index funds, and ETF’s. Didn’t panic last March, and just keep on investing regularly each month.

  • 5 Lee Briggs May 31, 2021, 2:52 pm

    Nice to hear from somebody at the start of their investment journey, look forward to your updates both financially and linguistically!

    Concur with AP regarding Dave Ramsey.

    Just totally off subject- did The Accumalator ever pay off his mortgage?

  • 6 Dawn May 31, 2021, 3:19 pm

    Same here. 2014 i knew nothing about investing.5k individual shares bought in my 20s and clients with tales to tell about losing lots of money in the stock market. With very large cash savings I typed into my browser how to protect your cash from inflation. I dont remember how I ended up on monevator, MMM, T escape artiste or Jim Collins I’ve no idea bit I read and read night after night and learned eveything I now know. I increased my work load, opened a ss isa , moved my personal pension into trackers, and began putting my portfolio together. I was 48!

  • 7 weenie May 31, 2021, 6:22 pm

    Great first post. Cantonese is not easy to master; I’ve never formally tried to learn it, my Canto ‘skills’ (I use this term very loosely!) were ‘honed’ from watching old TVB kung-fu shows during my teens and non-dubbed Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow movies! Whenever I visit my folks in Hong Kong – the family speak a different dialect, so it’s not my mother tongue – I just muddle along with the Canto speakers!

    All the best with your lessons and your investments.

  • 8 SurreyBoy May 31, 2021, 6:36 pm

    I liked the enthusiasm and pragmatism of the post. I think any message that gently guides people (the younger the better) onto the FI path is fantastic.

    I paid into a pension from day 1 of work but that was because the system pushed me to. I never gave any thought to FI until my mid forties when I concluded my job and how i lived my life was killing me.

    I expect that if someone had sat me down in my twenties and explained FI I would have rejected it as completely out of the question. I would have been overwhelmed with the enormity of the outcome and the length of the journey. Anyone telling me i could save 60% of my income and achieve FI in x number of years would have been laughed at. I would have understood the arithmetic but dismissed it as not for me. Life is for living.

    So any message that focuses on the “Trust me, take some small steps, it can only do you good and not harm, build up when you can and enjoy your life at the same time” is fantastic.

    The post also reminds me that the best time to invest was twenty years ago and the next best time is today.

  • 9 Jonathan B May 31, 2021, 8:43 pm

    Monevator’s last “origins” post got a lot of traction, and I suspect this one will too.

    I think a lot of us may have had a few equity investments because someone told us it was a good idea – but without it actually being part of any strategy. And it didn’t necessarily work out (in my case a tech fund bought about 1999) and once burnt twice shy. Eventually I somehow picked up that I needed a strategy that included shares, but this time round I spent a few evenings on Google and found Monevator which was something that clicked with me. Since then, so far so good.

    In terms of sticking to a plan, one thing that in retrospect has been helpful psychologically is spreading investments, “pound cost averaging”. Perhaps because of that timing failure with tech investments, even though I have read the simulations that say investing early is best I haven’t put money into an ISA at the beginning of the tax year but drip fed it. I may have lost a little profit, but the repeated investments have reinforced the sense that I am following a strategy and won’t alter it significantly on the basis of any stock market fluctuation.

  • 10 mr_jetlag May 31, 2021, 9:05 pm

    Welcome BnB! another very different voice to TI and TA. With regards to learning a different language it’s often spurred on by having a partner with a foreign language which I think is sweet. I hope your partner’s family take the time to gently correct your intonation – I learnt some shonky Mandarin oh so long ago and Canto is orders of magnitude tougher!

  • 11 Neverland June 1, 2021, 9:07 am

    If you look at what is happening with the sinofication of hong kong I don’t think cantonese has much of a shelf-life as a language really

    Also have a think about an aeropress go, might save you a bit of money to put in those index funds of yours

  • 12 lesley mackin June 1, 2021, 2:40 pm

    Really great article and an experience not too different to mine. I came across this website a few years ago and have learnt so much. As you have said its one step at a time and allowing to slowly build. A game changer for me was when someone recommended Tim Hale’s Smarter investing. The concepts/principles covered in the book are really easy to follow . I also love this site to check in with others so I dont make anyone wrong assumptions. In short i love this site and so grateful to everyone who contributes

  • 13 Brod June 1, 2021, 2:56 pm

    Aeropress?!? Pah!

    Hario V60, Hario Skerton hand grinder and a swan neck kettle with thermometer. (If you make you own filters out of cloth, you can re-use them and save 5p PER CUP!!!)

  • 14 TahiPanasDua June 1, 2021, 4:03 pm

    After 22 years in Hong Kong, the best I could manage was giving directions to taxi drivers. In recent years, even that tiny skill became obsolete as the drivers all learned some English. Cantonese is a very difficult language but hey….. mo mun tai! (no problem!)…. you can get by comfortably in Honkers without speaking a word.

    It was an open secret in the far-flung colonial civil service that the ruling administrative officers were quietly encouraged to pick up the local lingo by having a live-in dictionary (but absolutely NO marrying in those days!)

    The author is in a great position having a Cantonese wife. You have no excuse, mate!


  • 15 BeardyBillionaireBloke June 1, 2021, 9:04 pm

    > ‘Where are you going to?’‘Nowhere, I’m retiring early.’

    I was assigned to a new team to learn something. I said hypothetically would your plan change if I was a millionaire and planning to retire next year?

    Ben Felix says https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3D35ioEmCI

  • 16 Impersonal Finances June 2, 2021, 2:41 am

    The Simple Path to Wealth really should be required reading in college. I do think personal finance is easier than Cantonese, but I’ve never tried picking up the language! Money can be intimidating but I would say it’s more like learning the key phrases to be able to get around in a foreign land. You certainly don’t have to master the language!

  • 17 Subbuteo June 2, 2021, 2:14 pm

    Gaa yau! = add oil! Enjoyed your article so seemed appropriate! “Gaa yau!” is used to encourage people in Cantonese. I’ve tried hard to learn Cantonese and don’t have much beyond the basics. Look up Cantocourse on YouTube or Naked Cantonese podcasts from RTHK. Really accessible and humourous lessons.

    Glad to see TahiPanas2 (dua?) is on here. That’s a user name worth translating

  • 18 BenezC June 2, 2021, 3:50 pm

    Fantastic article and I can relate. I started my journey to FI 6 months ago. I’m very grateful to have discovered it when I am 25 years old.

    This website has been a Godsend and also looking forward to reading Smarter Investing soon. However can anyone recommend some personal finance/investing podcasts? Especially with a UK tilt?

    Many thanks.

  • 19 Budgets and Beverages June 3, 2021, 10:43 am

    Thank you for the vast range of responses to this, they were a pleasure to read through!

    @Chiny – I completely agree with the need for a purpose. That’s probably why I’ve failed with cantonese before. There wasn’t a pressing need. Now, I have a reason and that spurs you on. The same can definitely be said about FI. Thank you too for your ‘good luck’ message! (I definitely had to google translate it. My memories of A-Level Spanish are long gone!

    @NewInvestor – I like the name TheLearner! Very applicable! 100% agree in regards to not getting too bogged down in detail too early. Relax, take it easy and try to learn a bit more each day. It’s amazing how quickly knowledge comes together.

    @Max – 2013? You’re a pro in my eyes in that case. I don’t think people need to be wired a certain way, but more people need to be willing to learn. We all learn about money from those around us, but those beliefs might not be helping you at all. A willingness to be aware of that and change that is all you need to get started I think.

    @Andrew Preston – Dave Ramsey is an interesting one. He’s obviously super successful and clearly knows his stuff. However, the more knowledge I’ve gained, the more I’ve begun to disagree with a variety of the points he makes. No animosity from me to him as a person, just a difference of opinion on a matter of factors that other people in the FI world are doing differently. He is excellent on debt recovery though. As for yourself, sorry to hear what you had to go through. The most important thing is you came out the other side and you’re taking positive action. As the post suggests, that’s all you can do!

    @Dawn – Monevator, MMM, The Escape Artist and Jim Collins is an excellent selection of people to learn from. I’d also throw Alan Donegan into the mix, he’s been brilliant for me too. As with Andrew, you’re taking action and big action too – congratulations!

    @weenie – Thanks! It’s the tones I’m struggling with but I’ll get there!

    @SurreyBoy – Pensions are such an interesting topic. We’ve been taught that they’re complicated and boring and they’ll be there when you retire, that the majority of people, myself included, ignored it for too long. As is so often the case, you need a wake up call of some sort to kick into gear. Life definitely is for living, but the beauty of the FI world is that at no point are you expected to deprive yourself. That’s a quick road to giving up. It’s about understanding value and what brings you happiness. If you can manage your money around those things, then you’re on to a winner.

    @Jonathan B – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in regards to sticking to a plan. The key point is that plan has to work for you. Many people have done a variety of different things and many of them have had success. If pound cost averaging works for your lifestyle, and you’re aware of the potential consequences of doing that then that’s absolutely fine. The important part is you’re paying into an ISA. Many aren’t doing that.

    @Mr_jetlag – thanks! Apparently I should have mandarin first but it’s too late now. Also, your name implies you’re a bit of a globe-trotter?! If so, I’m striving for your lifestyle!

    @lesley mackin – I love a good book recommendation and have never heard of this one so thank you!

    @Brod – this is some next level beverage chat and you’re incorporating FI into it?! This is the kind of knowledge I’m here for!

    @TahiPanasDua 22 years? Wow. This is going to be a long journey! Although I did know mo mun tai – so that filled me with excitement!

    @Impersonal Finances – couldn’t agree more. So many people see how much they have to learn and walk away from it. Yet getting started gives you the basics and more often than not, that can be enough and puts you ahead of many, many others.

    @subbuteo – I didn’t know Gaa Yau – that’s going into the B&B Cantonese dictionary/phrase book! I also didn’t know about Cantocourse or NCP, so I’ll check them both out. As the post mentions, I had to invest in a course because I was just getting nowhere with trying to teach myself. The language is very complex – but very rewarding when you make progress. A bit like the world of FI!

    @BenezC – wow, 25?! From what I know so far, you are on a dream of a journey! Stay the course, stay dedicated and you’ll be reaping the rewards before you know it. In regards to podcasts, I’ve actually struggled to find ones with a UK tilt. My main choice is ChooseFI and although it’s an American podcast, there’s plenty of knowledge and guidance that translates to a UK audience. The Rebel Entrepreneur (Alan Donegan) is also excellent if you’re interested in a side hustle angle to the world of FI and he’s English so the content is very relatable. Enjoy your journey!

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