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My life lesson: future-self first

Marita Cheng’s mother taught her the value of prioritising spending on education over frivolities and consumer goods, writes Sylvia Pennington.

Investing in yourself is never a waste of money. Marita Cheng was reminded of this financial lesson every day growing up, courtesy of her mother who practised what she preached when it came to her children.

A high-tech entrepreneur and former young Australian of the year, Cheng grew up in a single parent family in housing commission in Cairns, far-north Queensland.

Her mother, a Hong Kong Chinese immigrant, worked as a hotel cleaner to support the family and ensure Marita and her older brother had access to educational and extracurricular activities to help them achieve their full potential.

“Never save money when investing in yourself and your future – like your education, university books, your business or conferences,” Cheng says. “Do save it when investing in things you want now, like that slice of cake or that new jacket.

“My mum demonstrated this philosophy to me throughout my life, by paying for me to learn from other people – piano lessons, Japanese lessons, Mandarin lessons, mathematics, art, speech and drama, basketball and swimming. She would tell me it was an investment in my future and that she didn’t mind spending that money.”

Expenditure on frivolities and consumer items, on the other hand, was limited.

“We didn’t buy the latest gadgets,” Cheng says. “We won a television in a raffle when I was four and that was the only TV we had until I was in my 20s.”

It’s a financial mindset which has stuck with her, even as her extraordinary academic success has opened up a host of opportunities, at home and abroad.

After completing year 12 in 2006 with top grades, Cheng eschewed medical school to undertake a double degree in mechatronics engineering and computer science at the University of Melbourne. Her laurels include a Paterson Scholarship and a Churchill Fellowship.

In 2012 she was named Young Australian of the Year, in recognition of her role as founder of Robogals, an outreach movement that encourages more girls into the science and technology sectors by running robotics sessions in schools, Robogals has worked with 50,000 girls in nine countries.

Post-graduation, Cheng has juggled her role as founder and chief executive officer of 2Mar – a venture which designs and builds telepresence robots to enable individuals who are hospitalised or housebound to attend work or school virtually – with speaking engagements and positions on a string of boards.

“Mum’s advice made me appreciate that you should spend money on things that matter, and save money on things that don't matter,” Cheng says.

“I still think of it every day, in my business and in my life. I'm always thinking, what are the things I should be doing to make my business better, and so that I can gain more knowledge?

“It makes your money go further, rather than just wasting it on the things you want now.”

This is a series from ANZ Women asking leading Australians to share important financial advice that has changed their life.

November 2016