This is my second installment on my series on the life stories of Personal Finance Advocates. Efren Cruz is a pioneer in the Personal Finance industry in the Philippines. He wrote the book Puede Na! (A Complete Guide to Personal Finance) in 2004, and is the chairman and president of the Personal Finance Advisers Philippines Corporation. I met him back in the mid 80s at Far East Bank and Trust Company. I thought I knew “Cute” (well, that’s what I remember him wanting to be called back then) very well, but our merienda of bibingka one afternoon for this article still gave me a lot of new knowledge about my friend Efren.
Born in 1962 Efren is the middle child and only son of Col. Alfonso and Beatrice Cruz. He has an older sister Leila and younger sister Mylene. His early years were spent at the Camp Aguinaldo where they resided because his father worked for the Army. There was a year when they resided in the US while his father studied there.
Unfortunately, Efren lost his father when he was only 12, “My father was only 44 years old when he died. And maybe even if his problem was really with his kidney, he died of stroke because he worried too much. In February 1974 he was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (a kidney disorder passed down through families in which many cysts form causing the kidneys to enlarge), and after that he had urinalysis almost on a daily basis. Then his doctors would discuss and argue about his case in front of him, which Mama hated because she knew that Papa was nerbyoso.”
Efren recalls the day he lost his father, “Papa used to teach Statistics and after work, he would drive from the camp to the University of the East. But one day he came back because he said he wanted to rest. Later that night, I was about to sleep when our maid called me, ‘Efren, Efren, ang Papa mo!’ I rushed to the room and saw my mom trying to resuscitate him. I was asked to call the Infirmary and I remember even making the wrong call to the dental clinic. My father died on his bed in February 1975.”
The strong widow and Efren’s Money Memory
Beatrice Llamas Cruz became a widow at 39, a woman who had never worked a single day outside of homemaking. Circumstances forced her to make a living, “My mother went into the business of curtain-making. She had gay employees. She also did a lot of buy and sell. She would go to offices like the Philippine Veterans Bank to sell all sorts of things, mostly jewelry. After a grace period of one year, we had to leave the field officers’ quarters in Camp Aguinaldo. Fortunately, my mom was able to build our house in Quezon City, with her earnings and with the help of her siblings.”
It was a good thing that there was a benefit for military men who died while in service that gave scholarships to the children left behind. Efren used seven of the ten years provided for. He used it for his high school and college at the Ateneo de Manila University, while the rest was used by his younger sister.
This helped their family a lot. But what is really admirable is how his mother was able to provide for them. Efren recalls always hearing his mother say, “Wala tayong pera!” He narrates a story when he was a teenager and was already driving their family car, “Mama lagyan natin yong kotse ng bura-bura (that thing that makes the muffler noisy which was the in thing then and somehow added some pogi points to the one driving). Of course the immediate answer was ‘Wala tayong pera!’”
When I asked him more about his money memory, he shared some tidbits about his father, “My father used to say, ‘Huwag kang mag PMA, walang pera dito.’ Of course, he was referring to the straight kind of military man. But I do remember that he tried to have a business on the side. He had a fishpond in Laguna de Bay, and the one lesson I learned early on was that you cannot be an absentee-businessman. Nanakawan ka lang, and my father was already a military man during Martial Law! But I do remember Papa tutoring me in my studies. I remember him really wanting me to study in Ateneo, that’s why after I finished grade school at Lourdes Mandaluyong, I moved to Ateneo for high school.”
Looking back now, Efren realizes how strong his mother was in raising them as a single parent. It was only recently when she would tell them stories about her challenges in earning a living as a widow and the men who showed interest in her. Her resolve to focus on raising her children made her not entertain any of her suitors. Efren observes, “Para syang si Mama Mary, she just kept the pain to herself.”
And raise them well with considerable comfort she did. In 1978 she was able to send them on a vacation to the USA. Moreover, she acquired real estate properties and distributed some to her children.
When her three children were older, she even adopted a niece to raise as her own child. “My mother knew personal finance by heart, even if she didn’t study it. She was very frugal, she worked hard, and she shared what she had.”
Preparation for Career/Advocacy
Efren’s original ambition was to be a pilot but somehow he didn’t pursue it. His mother wanted him to be a doctor but neither did he pursue this. He shares, “If I followed my mother’s advice I might be one of those doctors now who are charging an arm and a leg for their services! When I was choosing what course to pick at the Ateneo I picked B.S. Business Management. Do you know why? Because at that time there was no thesis defense for this course, and I really dreaded pubic speaking. Little did I know that this would become part of my profession. But I already had a fondness for amortization schedules. To me it was like magic how it will all zero out at the end of the loan’s term. When I would see loan advertisements showing monthly amortizations, I would compute for the effective interest rate. I even prepared the amortization schedule for my mom when she first ventured buying a real estate property using a loan!”
Right after college graduation in 1982 Efren worked at PDCP as Project Analyst. He stayed there for a couple of years; afterwhich, he took up his master’s degree at the University of the Philippines where he ranked number 4 in class. His next stint was at the Credit Division of Far East Bank and Trust Company in 1986 and that’s where I met him.
I remember Efren then as a quiet guy with a different sense of humor, the dry poker type that you would have to figure out whether he was cracking a joke or not. He was a kind person, a devoted and frugal boyfriend. He bought his girlfriend flowers before Valentine’s Day and not from a fancy flower shop. One time while our group was in Baguio, I remember Efren and Marvin (now my husband) buying dozens of roses wrapped in newspapers because they said it’s only in Baguio where they can afford to buy dozens of roses for their girlfriends. I also remember when an officemate and I hitched a ride with him from our Intramuros office to Quezon City. When we reached the part along Quezon Avenue where there were trees, he switched off the aircon and said, “We can open our windows now for fresh air!”
Lovelife and Family Life
Efren met his future wife Vicky at Far East Bank. He was trying to set up Vicky on a date with another guy, “Somehow their schedules wouldn’t match so I joked her, ‘Ako na lang kaya i-date mo?’ So we went out and on our first date I enjoyed her company, her sense of humor, how she carried herself, parang natural lang. In less than a year we got married. That was December 1989 which coincided with the coup-d-etat!”
Efren’s admirable mom again played an important role in the wedding, “Aside from the house and lot she gifted us with, Mama gave us a budget of P100,000.00 for our wedding. At that time hindi pa uso cash gifts, so ang dami naming natanggap na punch bowls!” We both laughed at this because we did too, and some are still in use right now.
Were you and Vicky conscious about money values right from the start?
Parang hindi. I never really discussed money with her. Perhaps we didn’t even manage it too well at the start. It was more of a come what may. I was a Finance person but not a Personal Finance person yet. We were not consciously saving yet. In fact, a lot of the things I teach now came from my personal experiences. Minsan nagigipit din sa pera.
When did you become conscious about personal finance?
A few years into our marriage. Vicky was still working then. By the way, I asked Vicky to become a full time mom when our youngest was two years old. Parang nakukuha na kasi ng mga anak namin yong accent ni yaya. Anyway, my awakening came when I started to have a love-hate relationship with the credit card. I felt that we always had payables, parang hindi matapos-tapos ang binabayaran ko sa credit card. Pag credit card ang gamit mo, hindi mo nararamdaman na gumagastos ka ng pera kaya napapadami. Since then I stopped availing of those no interest installment plans. I still use my credit card, especially for purchases with Amazon, and sometimes for the points.
Some things never change.
Even if they were not conscious about religiously saving right at the start, Efren’s frugal ways persisted. Some things never change as illustrated by this story, “One Valentine’s Day Vicky woke up to see fresh roses from me with a Valentine greeting. She was very happy for that surprise then when she went out of the house, she noticed that the car tires were muddy so she asked why.” To that I answered correctly, “Bumili ka ng roses sa palengke, ano?”
When I asked him if he had any plans for their silver anniversary next year, he said they’ve never been big on celebrating milestone numbers, “It started with the first birthday of our oldest. We didn’t want to have the usual big birthday bash because she won’t even remember it. So we celebrated her second. Then it was carried over to their seventh birthdays, we celebrated their eighth. Muntik na nga yong debut maging 19th. Same with our anniversaries. What usually happens is I buy Vicky an expensive gift with no occasion, then I’d say, ‘O pang Christmas na yan ha, at Valentine, birthday, anniversary!’”
Efren and Vicky have two daughters, Mavi who’s now working as a writer at GMA and Roni, a third year college student at the Ateneo taking up European Studies. Just like his mom, Efren finds himself using that line, “Wala tayong pera!” to his children to instill simplicity and frugality, until one day when his daughters called his attention that he shouldn’t say that anymore because it gives the mindset of scarcity. Well, as they say, you always learn from your children.
No one inherited Efren’s fondness for numbers but they’ve been taught how to save, “I tell them you don’t have to be brilliant or extra smart but you can save and have a good future. And they do save. I’ve challenged my oldest who just started working to save 50% of her salary. I gave my assurance that I will provide for her basic needs like transportation, etc. It’s good because she’s saving up for her master’s in Creative Writing, which she wants to pursue abroad. She invests in equity fund and of course she got nervous when the market went down recently. I just had to assure her, ‘Okay lang yan, kilala ko yong fund manager ng fund mo.’”
Challenges and Blessings in Health and Career
Efren helped set up The First Philippine Fund (a close-end Philippine country fund listed at the New York Stock Exchange). There was big hype and excitement on this but it suffered during the Asian financial crisis in the late 90s. In 2004 he wrote his book Puede Na which became a bestseller after only two months. He feels that all the experiences he had setting up companies, stints in fund management, writing about Personal Finance prepared him for his current advocacy.
In 2005 when symptoms of his kidney problem were showing up, he felt that he could better prepare for his medical needs by setting up his own business, so he set up his Personal Finance Advisers Philippines Corporation in 2006. Nonetheless, he was hired by Standard Chartered Bank as the General Manager of its Wealth Management. Fortunately, it was during his stint with this foreign bank when he had his kidney transplant in June 2008, a procedure that cost P1.4 million. More than the financial benefit from the bank, Efren counts among his blessings the fact that he was able to receive a kidney from a non-relative shortly after he applied with the foundation.
After his successful operation they faced another challenge which was the 2008 global financial crisis. Selling derivatives, his function at that time, was one of the first to go during the cost cutting measures in June 2009. He assured Vicky that everything was going to be fine since he already started his own company. But of course, deep inside him he was wondering, “Which companies would spend to teach their employees about Personal Finance, a subject that has no direct impact on their businesses during a global financial crisis? You know I always share this experience in my training sessions. By June 2009 we were still okay but come October 2009 our cash levels were going down so tumawag ako kay Lord, sabi ko ‘Lord, first I was afraid, now I’m petrified! So liliitan ko na yong bigay ko sa church.’”
Efren can look at those times with a happy heart now as earnings from his company have stabilized, surpassing his highest earnings prior to the crisis. Vicky helps him out in the business and sometimes even their daughters pitch in as his secretariat in some seminars. He observes that companies with patriarchal cultures are the ones willing to spend to teach personal finance to their employees.
Where do you invest? What’s your portfolio like?
I don’t invest in the stock market anymore. I’m now zero in stocks, bonds and pooled funds. I’m fully invested in my business. I know it’s high risk but I’m looking forward to high reward. At this point I can still take high risk as I grow my business. Hopefully in a few years, the new additions to the business will be fully operational and earning. That will be my retirement.
What are your challenges and rewards in teaching Personal Finance?
The reward is in seeing my participants’ eyes light up when they finally understand where they are and what they can do to improve their situation. You can see the empowerment in their faces. The big challenge is in making everyone recognize the importance of financial planning. There are challenges in coming up with new ideas to engage your audience, both the readers and the training participants. I also hope that people understand the products being sold to them before they buy, and not be swayed by misselling. That is why I make it a point not to earn commissions from any products. I want to remain objective in my recommendations.
What’s your most expensive purchase? Your “luho?”
Aside from my kidney? Guitars. I have three electric guitars right now. Well, the most expensive is a vintage guitar worth P60,000.00 which I bought from my teacher for P43,000.00. I intend to sell two of them because I want to buy this really nice and expensive guitar in Japan.
Any parting words to our readers?
Money is never the goal.
It was a great afternoon spent getting to know an old friend better. Thanks Efren for sharing your story and for your significant contributions to Personal Finance in the Philippines: Your books Puede Na (The Complete Guide to Personal Finance), Pueda Na (The Complete Guide to Retirement and Estate Planning), Usapang Pera: Mga Dapat Alamin, (click PDIC link to download free ebook), your free Pinoy Personal Finance calculator mobile app Ya!Man, your personal finance columns, and many more.
You can catch Efren in his Personal Finance Seminars by checking his website PersonalFinance.ph. He also does one-on-one consultancy at very reasonable rates. Who knows he may even throw in a guitar rendition while he coaches you!