Learn how dad To Kien instils good habits at home to save money and the environment.


“I believe it’s important to teach our children the value of not wasting ― saving electricity and water at home, for example, reduces our utilities bill and saves the environment.

There are three reasons why people save things ― first, because of financial reasons, second, because they are aware of saving the environment, and third, a mix of the first two.

My family is originally from Vietnam. In my childhood in the 1970s and early 1980s, my country was still poor. So, the saving habit that I observed and picked up during my childhood were mainly because of the first reason.

Everyone ― like my parents and my neighbours ― reused clothes, passed them down to siblings, or other children of similar age. We saved electricity where we could, like when we stepped out of one room and into another, we would ‘automatically’ turn off the lights in the previous room. We also reused water from the hand-washing of clothes or fruit to flush the toilet.

But it’s not just lower-income countries that practise reducing wastage. When I went to Germany to do my Masters, I saw people spending sparingly and saving things, too. Flea markets were popular in Europe, and I sometimes visited them at weekends to hunt for surprisingly good bargains or rare things from around the world.

A few years later, I returned to Vietnam and got married. My wife and I then went to Japan to pursue our next degree. Flea markets and second-hand shops are also popular in Japan. When we first moved into a home, my host family gave us many good, used, household items.

“I think that kids from age of 2 or 3 can start picking up the good habit of not wasting things.”

When we had a son and then a daughter, we were heartened to receive from our host lady her children’s old clothes that she had prudently kept for 15 years.

At our children’s nursery schools, we saw washable, reusable fabric diapers in use, instead of the disposable ones. When the kids started kindergarten, they were taught how to use things sparingly ― such as saving water, bringing a personal handkerchief, so as to use less tissue paper. We just needed to provide some additional guidance at home.

From my own experience in Japan, I think that kids from age of 2 or 3 can start picking up the good habit of not wasting things. When they grow a little older, they’ll be able to understand the concepts behind what they’ve been doing and why they’ve been doing it. Simple habits, like saving electricity and water, can be inculcated.



We pass items down to younger siblings. Of course, it is harder if you have both a boy and a girl, like we do. So, we tried to purchase things, like their toys and bicycles, in neutral colours so that when our son outgrows it, our daughter can then use it.

I try not to throw away things that are still usable. If I really can’t keep the items, I think about whom I can give them away to. The tricky part is that you may hesitate asking your friends because you worry they feel uncomfortable, or think you are looking down on them. In that case, for valuable items, you might consider selling them or giving them away on websites like Gumtree or Carousell.

We can create beautiful art by reusing old, colourful magazines, or we can reuse and upcycle food containers. For instance, cookie tins can be reused as containers for toys, tools or medicines, and plastic milk bottles can be cut and reused as planter boxes. By doing so, we can foster creativity and a DIY culture for our kids.

I enjoy repairing stuff ― I do it all at home, including electrical appliances, furniture and bicycles. As a child, I spent hours at a bicycle repair shop, watching the whole process. Now I still recall those repair techniques and tried out them by myself. Plus, everything is online these days ― if you don’t know how to do something, just Google or YouTube it.

Cookie tins can be reused as containers for toys, tools or medicines, and plastic milk bottles can be cut and reused as planter boxes.”

I often tell my kids that when you throw away an electrical appliance, the least you could do is to salvage the cord and screws as materials for your future repairs. Just cut it off, or unscrew a few! If you like upcycling, you can salvage more parts from different broken stuff, and enjoy assembling parts together to create new stuff. Just surprise and inspire others!

If we tried but really can’t repair an item, it would be good to bring it to a repair centre nearby. In fact, it would be good to have a small ‘Fix Hub’ located in each Community Club in our heartlands. It would be great to have a dedicated space in each neighbourhood where people can leave their unwanted items on different shelves, labelled ‘Fully usable’, ‘Reusable but requires fixing’, and ‘Reusable parts only’. It’s a good way to pass things to people who need them, as well as to crowdsource materials you’d need when you repair things, like screws or cords.

Another thing I encourage my children to save is food, like, trying to finish their meals or drinks. Of course, when they were younger, they got angry and cried, so I had to be very patient. As they got older, I showed them online video clips of starving children who didn’t have enough food to eat, and how quickly and joyfully they finished their little portions. After watching these, my kids seemed to value their food more, and understood how fortunate they were.

If they didn’t finish their food, I showed them video clips showing where the wasted food went. When you throw the leftovers into the bin, it starts to smell bad. Some people even throw them into recycling bins, and the food gets mixed up with the recyclables, making them non-recyclable.



It’s important to have a role model when it comes to reducing wastage. I would start picking at something, and my kids would say, ‘I knew you would do that!’ This shows me that they are aware of what can be done, and that they’ve already formed the mindset of saving. I would tell them, ‘Okay, if you knew I would do that, help me!’ I’m also glad when they share the stories with their friends, or when they proudly tell their schoolmates that their dad fixed their stuff.

Besides being a role model yourself, you can look elsewhere for good role models. For instance, there’s a Trash Man video online that my son is hooked on. He’s an American environmental activist whose project was to wear a transparent plastic costume that holds all the trash he produces ― like the average American ― in 30 days, to raise environmental awareness.

My son absolutely loves the videos and is so excited every time a new clip goes online. After having watched all the clips of that project, my son searched for other environmental educational clips posted by the ‘Trash Man’.

So, use role models ― it could be yourself, or other people.

I would start picking at something, and they would say, ‘I knew you would do that!’”

Lastly, I explain to my children that saving things or spending sparingly is different from being ‘stingy’. You spend adequately on things that you think that are deserving. For example, our family loves travelling, so I often encourage my children to stick to their ‘needs’ and ‘refrain’ from buying their ‘wants’. This way, they are able to save up and spend up happily, on top of what my wife and I buy for them during these family trips.

To sum up, I recommend following the 5Rs ― which make up what I call ‘the Big Cut’ ― in order to reduce waste considerably.

1. Refuse or refrain Refuse to let yourself (and others, like your family members) from buying new unnecessary stuff, and stick to your needs;

2. Reduce When buying too much, we pay an ‘invisible’ cost for storage space, and end up throwing away unused, spoilt items like rotten food or mouldy leather bags or shoes;

3. Reuse Instead of throwing away items that can still be used, try to give them away;

4. Repair Repairing items discourages the throwaway culture;

5. Remake or repurpose When something cannot be fixed, take it apart and repurpose it to produce something new and creative.

To Kien has been a senior research scientist and adjunct assistant professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) since 2011. He lives in Singapore with his wife and two kids, daughter To Bao Lan, 8, and son, To Minh, 11.

Photos: To Kien

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