In 2016, Max Leong brought S$500 with him into a casino and walked out later that night with a staggering haul of S$20,000.
While this would be a dream come true for many, it was in fact the start of a nightmare for Leong, as he quickly became addicted to gambling, and racked up over S$40,000 in credit card debts after a few short years.
With his family relationships strained and creditors breathing down his neck, Leong eventually realised that he had only one way out: To work harder than he had ever done before, in order to escape his financial prison.
It took two years of Leong working 14 hours a day, seven days a week to finally pay off his many debts; the final sum he paid, after accounting for interest, was close to S$80,000.
He fed his gambling addiction by incurring credit card debt
Leong's first visit to a casino was in 2015, when a friend suggested it as an activity to pass the time.
He did what most casino first-timers would: Placed a few bets, had a night of fun, and as a bonus, he even managed to win a small amount of money.
Spurred on by his early success, Leong began frequenting the casino more often, and it soon became a way for him to earn money fast.
With his son's birth on the horizon, Leong was feeling the pressure of the increased expenses associated with raising a young child in Singapore, especially given that he was the sole breadwinner of the family, while being self-employed as a tutor.
As Leong already had to pay large amounts every month for his housing and renovation loan instalments, gambling seemed like the easiest way to raise the money necessary for his family to live a comfortable life.
Naturally, the fateful night where he won S$20,000 in one sitting helped to further justify his escalating gambling habit, as he reasoned that he would soon be able to pay off all his debts with just a few more good nights in the casino.
Leong used half of his S$20,000 winnings to pay off a significant chunk of his renovation loan payments in advance, keeping the other half to continue gambling.
However, as the saying goes, the house always wins, and Leong lost the other $10,000 in no time at all.
To fuel his new-found addiction, he took out bank loans, and even withdrew money from ATMs using his credit cards.
His visits to the casino strained his relationship with his wife
Leong's wife first found out about his gambling habit when she woke up one night, and realised that he wasn't at home.
When she subsequently found out that he was actually in the casino in the middle of the night, the two quarrelled, and she forbade him from going to the casino again.
Leong initially promised her that he would stop visiting the casino, although it was only a matter of time before he fell prey to temptation once again.
One particular night, Leong's heavily pregnant wife called him more than twenty times, after realising he wasn't at home late at night.
When Leong failed to answer her calls, she resorted to penning a public Facebook post, asking their mutual friends if they knew where her husband went. To her disappointment, she eventually found out that he was indeed at the casino, despite his prior promise that he would stay away.
After the incident, Leong assured his wife yet again that he would stop gambling, but soon returned to his regular casino visits, which would continue for the next three years.
While he was aware that his actions strained their relationship greatly, Leong shared that it was extremely difficult for him to keep his promise to her, as he continued to be enamoured by the thrill of the game, and often spent his waking hours thinking about gambling, even when he wasn't physically at the casino.
This was the reason why Leong felt that it was impossible for him to quit gambling completely, despite his wife and family's pleas, as he himself did not feel that gambling was wrong.
"It was not what I wanted to do, it was what she and many people told me to do. What people tell you, and what you really have in your mind are two different things."
Counselling helped him realise what he was doing wrong
However, by 2018, even Leong himself began to see the need to stop his gambling habit, as he began to see his debts rising to an uncontrollable level.
While there was no single trigger for his moment of clarity, Leong explained that the ever-increasing bills he received on a monthly basis made him think twice about the future of his family, as he did not want to burden them with his debts, should anything untoward happen to him.
While gambling was certainly a key reason for his escalating debts, Leong's real problem was how he financed his habit: through multiple credit cards.
He often only paid the minimum sum required, causing his debt to balloon due to the high interest rates.
In addition, as time went on, he began falling behind on his payments, causing him to be on the hook for late payment charges as well, which were as high as S$75 per month, for a single card.
And the snowballing interest usually offset whatever money he paid to the banks.
"Even if I put in S$500, sometimes you'll see the amount don't change a lot. So this is something that is very hard to break away from," he said.
His turning point came when he sought professional help at Credit Counselling Singapore (CSC), a charity organisation which helps individuals address their debt-related problems.
"I only went there for one session; it was all it took to change my whole life," he said.
The staff at CSC gave him lots of practical advice on how to avoid future debt, and how best to deal with his current situation.
For example, Leong was reminded that running away from creditors wasn't the solution, and that he needed to make the effort to try and settle his debts.
They also warned him against depending too much on credit cards, and gave him a clear idea of how much he was really paying in interest every month.
Worked up to 14 hours a day to clear his debt
With his new-found knowledge, Leong could see that he was on a tight timeline: He would need to pay off each of his creditors one by one, and clear his outstanding loans as soon as possible, before the interest buried him.
But how would he come up with such large sums of money?
While the Leong of the past might have been tempted to resort to gambling, he had already learned his lesson. Instead, he decided to hunker down, and commit to working longer hours every day.
So what did an average day for Leong look like?
On a typical weekday, he would start driving at 4am, taking a short break before sending his son to school.
He would then drive for a few more hours, before taking another break for lunch.
He would then commence his tuition classes till around 8pm, before completing a few more Grab trips, stopping at around midnight.
At his peak, Leong earned up to S$7,000 a month as a Grab driver, after deducting expenses, by carefully accumulating every incentive Grab offered to its drivers.
He entrusted his wife to manage his money
However, while he was certainly successful in drastically increasing his earnings, all this would have been for naught, if he did not curb his spending.
To help ensure that he would not continue gambling, Leong enlisted the services of a financial manager: His wife.
He would give all his earnings to her, trusting her to carefully manage the household finances, and to pay off their creditors one by one.
Leong had no qualms handing over full control of his finances, emphasising that he had complete trust in his wife, thanks to the fact that she never gave up on him, even in their family's darkest hour. She proved to be a capable administrator, keeping a tight leash on the family's finances while handling all the household chores as well.
The duo's hard work paid off in 2021, when they finally paid off Leong's final credit card loan in full, after two years of Leong working around the clock.
Indeed, Leong proudly declared that the couple no longer owns any credit cards, having learnt a valuable lesson after their ordeal.
"The thing about all these loans and stuff, is that you're using future money. You can't predict what's going to happen next," he said.
While Leong may not be in debt anymore, he continues to give all his earnings to his wife to manage, as he admitted that he does not feel ready to handle his own finances because of his bad spending habits.
For example, he would often splurge at restaurants rather than settling for hawker centre meals, even when he knew he should be saving money.
"Last month, I tried to manage my money for myself, just for three weeks. I can't. I realise I'm a failure in managing money," he said sheepishly.
Regretted not being able to spend more time with his sons
While Leong's story is certainly a heartwarming one, his success did not come without sacrifice.
His punishing work schedule meant that Leong only slept for around four hours a day, with a few short breaks throughout the day.
Naturally, this took a toll on Leong's body, and he faced a few health scares along the way.
A routine blood test that he took months before clearing his debt revealed that both his blood sugar level and blood pressure were abnormally high, causing him to think twice about working such long hours, although he eventually kept going due to his debts.
Leong also regretted not being able to spend more time with his two sons, as he spent most of his time working.
Although he was constantly busy with work, the two of them would always follow him around the house whenever he was around, making sure to spend as much time as they could with their father.
In fact, Leong recalled that whenever he was resting between shifts, his younger son would often take the opportunity to sneak into his bedroom, just to catch a glimpse of him.
For Leong, the fact that his sons continued to show such affection for him was "very surprising", as he felt that he did not spend enough time with them, especially over the last two years.
And with such a gruelling schedule, it was perhaps no surprise that Leong had nearly no time for any recreational activities during the last two years, even with his family.
"I've already sacrificed my family time, there's no way for me to have any form of leisure," he said bluntly.
No more credit cards
Today, Leong is proud to say that he's almost debt-free.
He no longer possesses any credit cards, believing them to be a temptation that is not worth the trouble.
"When you spend in cash, you spend beneath your means. We don't believe in credit cards anymore," he said flatly.
And while he is still servicing his housing loan, he is actually well ahead of many other homeowners in terms of mortgage payments, as he has paid off close to half the loan amount in just six years.
And while sacrifices had to be made in order to lift himself out of debt, Leong finally has room to make some adjustments in his life, acknowledging that his hectic work schedule for the last two years was not at all sustainable in the long run.
He's now cut back drastically on his Grab activity, working only around 24 hours a week, or less than a third of what he used to.
Combined with his tuition classes, this meant that he only works up to 10 hours a day on average, which gives him much more free time compared to the last two years..
Apart from getting more much-needed rest, his new schedule also allows him to spend more quality time with his family.
And while he still works on weekends (noting that demand for tuition classes peaks on the weekends), he only drives for Grab whenever he has pockets of free time during the weekdays, in order to ensure that he gets sufficient rest.
Leong recalled that when he made the decision to cut back on his hours working for Grab, many fellow drivers felt he was making a mistake, given that he was making S$6,000 to S$7,000 a month.
However, Leong insisted that choosing shorter hours and lower earnings was the right choice, as it has allowed him to make up for lost time with his loved ones.
"I feel like what really matters in life, is whether you are able to enjoy life to the fullest with your family."
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top image via Max Leong.