Wealth Lessons from the Year of the Rat

Chinese culture portrays rats as ambitious and cunning, and anyone trying to get ahead in the world and in their finances can take a lesson from their character traits, whether good or bad.

(Image credit: Linda Bestwick (Linda Bestwick (Photographer) - [None])

The Year of the Rat is here, and in Chinese culture, rats are a sign of wealth.

While rats are generally perceived as filthy, hungry and seedy, they are also portrayed in popular culture as resourceful and ambitious — for example, take the pizza rat videos from the New York subway. That was a rat on a mission.

The myth of the Jade Emperor is an example of a rat being cunning. The emperor had a party and decided the order of the animals would be determined by who arrived first. The charming rat tricked the ox into giving him a lift. As they arrived, the rat scurried and landed in front of the ox, arriving first.

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According to Chinese astrological traditions, the rat is considered ambitious, intelligent, charming and excellent at economizing. The animal’s weaknesses include such traits as frugality, greediness, a tendency to hoard and being conniving. They are also seen as power hungry and being a bit of a gossip. But don’t count the rat out. Keep in mind that using our challenges helps us to become stronger and financially savvier.

What can rats teach us about finance?

Take the sting out of being stingy

The cost of living continues to rise, and it is hard to stay on a strict financial diet. So, start off easy by discarding the items that you could do without, such as premium cable or the fanciest tech gadgets. Cable bills often run a few hundred dollars per month, so they are prime targets for economizing. To save, try some new, cheaper ways to watch. Technology now allows people to view television online, and Netflix provides ample opportunity to binge watch.

Be a creative rat and analyze your spending habits to discover ways to save and invest for your future. For example, prepare your own lunch from home, and resist the urge to shop when you’re bored or to upgrade your phone when the latest model hits the shelves. Redirect your “found” money to your Roth IRA or 401(k) to build wealth for your financial independence. Use coupons those you get from the store instead of putting them in a drawer.

The holidays and special events are hard on the wallet. Being stingy can bring out the creativity in a rat. Philosopher Dao De Jing says that the greatest resources a person can have are love, generosity and frugality. Put them to work to save. It feels better to create a homemade gift than to spend tons of money. Think of the return on investment: a few dollars to make something special means more to the recipient than an expensive gift.

Is it gossip or networking?

In Chinese astrological tradition, rats love to gossip. The downside of gossip is it can hurt others’ feelings, you could spread false information, and it makes you look bad.

There is a way of using the gift of gab to your advantage, though: Befriend others and build relationships. Don’t just contact people when you need something or have juicy bits of information. Ask people what you can do for them. For example, if you hear a colleague is having surgery, ask the person how you can help, such as getting them a coffee or picking up their mail for them.

Keep important items (the key word is ‘important’)

There are people who like to keep items such as baby pictures or a mug their kids made. Then there are those who hold onto broken chairs, old medicine bottles and expired food.

Hoarding can be a destructive problem, but you can use hoarding tendencies to your advantage. Go through items and save important papers such as financial documents, sentimental items like photos and valuable items such as old toys from your grandparents. Some of these collections may be worth money. Financial documents might be needed when securing a loan. Start going through other items and deciding what to do with them, such as recycling old cans for money or donating clothes to a homeless shelter.

Gather scraps for a rainy day

Saving is important, as you never know if an unexpected expense may come your way. Start simple by making a budget. Then list what money is coming into the household and what is going out. What are your monthly expenses, such as rent, utilities, food and gas? A rat always has to be prepared for a quick move or escape. The less a rat has to carry, the easier it is to make a quick getaway.

It can be terrifying to look at the amount of debt you accumulated over the past year or longer. The same goes for growing debt: We toss credit card bills, bank statements and other documents into a closet or drawer. Find out your credit score and obtain a credit report to see the big picture. This will determine what you need to clean up and the state of your financial affairs and will help set up a rainy-day fund.

A clever rat

A person who is resourceful and clever will look for ways to save money or energy. An example is having your hair cut at a salon school or asking your doctor for a sample before filing a prescription for a three-month supply of medicine. The goal is to find creative ways to save money. Being thrifty is also important to a rat; for example, taking shorter showers to save on the water bill or growing your own produce and fruit to reduce grocery costs.

Be adaptable

In the business world, being adaptable is a great skill set. When you are flexible and can go with the flow, your bosses take notice. They see you as a valuable employee with good leadership skills. If things go sour, such as failing on a project or not making a sale, an adaptable person can quickly bounce back. Being resilient allows a person to keep moving when things get rough.

Life is a rat race. Everyone is trying get their slice of cheese in terms of finances. If people rethink their weaknesses, they can turn them into strengths and save money in the process.

Here's to a new year and a new you!


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Marguerita M. Cheng, CFP® & RICP®
CEO, Blue Ocean Global Wealth

Marguerita M. Cheng is the Chief Executive Officer at Blue Ocean Global Wealth. She is a CFP® professional, a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor℠ and a Retirement Income Certified Professional. She helps educate the public, policymakers and media about the benefits of competent, ethical financial planning.