Breaking the typical Filipino story: Rising from poverty, beating cancer, and dreaming big

April 01, 2019 – Vinz Lamorena

Gigi Sequitin’s budget didn’t afford her to dream big. She was busy trying to save every centavo she could, running different business ideas through her head that can add to her household’s income.

For 14 years, Gigi took on the responsibilities of a homemaker full time. With a single-income household, her family lived simply. A chunk of their money was used to pay for their low-cost home in Cavite, and eating out during payday seemed to be their greatest luxury. Whenever Gigi’s husband received his quarterly bonus, it immediately went to their children’s educational plans.

She admitted she was a real penny-pincher. Her top priorities were the house amortization and education. She didn’t allow herself to buy new clothes and other personal necessities to give way for other expenses. It came to a point that Gigi’s stinginess would cause disagreements with her husband.

Her greatest fear was going bankrupt. “It’s scary to have zero money to spend, to be forced into taking out loans,” Gigi said. But in 2011, her family was left with no choice. They had to borrow money for her medical treatments. She was just diagnosed with breast cancer, the same disease that took her mother away when she was just 5 years old. 

It was in its early stages when the doctors detected two small cysts during an annual checkup. It then multiplied to six a few months after. The biopsy showed the lumps were cancerous, but luckily she didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy. “No one really prepares themselves to be sick,” Gigi said. “I only asked the doctor one question. I said, ‘Doc, am I going to die?’”

“I had so many things in my head. I got depressed. I looked to the future that could happen,” she said with tears welling up in her eyes. “I thought about my young kids. I was worried that history would repeat itself.”

Gigi has now beaten cancer for seven good years. However, a slight fear still creeps in every time she’s due for her annual checkup. What she didn’t feel anxious over, however, was the expenses she now had to maintain to keep her cancer-free. Things had indeed changed when the new decade started to roll in. 

No longer just a housewife, Gigi found herself gaining a financial advisor certificate under one of the most trusted insurance companies in the country. Taking on this new role would be what most people would call coincidence—because the first thing she actually did after her breast operation was inquire about insurance. Now she has just taken on a branch manager position for Sunlife.

“My husband had an HMO, but that didn’t really cover everything. Our small savings got depleted and we suddenly had debt. My first reaction was regret, because when I was offered all these health and life insurances two years prior, I thought I was too healthy to need it,” Gigi said. “If I had prioritized it then, it could’ve helped my family during my hospitalization.”

alike asked the financial adviser about her story towards financial literacy and stability:

Why were you so strict about budgeting and saving?

When it comes to handling money, I’m proud to say I’m really good at managing it. I came from a poor family, so it was ingrained in me that I didn’t want to keep living like that. I had to make sure that every centavo my husband worked hard for would be allocated properly. I’m scared of running out of money and being sunk in debt that’s why I wanted to budget and record everything down to the last centavo.

Is there a reason why you were you so scared of losing money?

I wasn’t always a housewife. I worked at a manufacturing firm in Cavite and eventually became an OFW in Abu Dhabi. For five years I had to send my brother to school. My father was a carpenter and we stayed at my stepmother’s house.

I really wanted to elevate myself. I knew I didn’t want the life we had, and I needed to leave that house to strive to live better. I had to work hard because I wanted to send my younger sibling to school—I didn’t want him to be just a carpenter like my dad, who already started bringing him to construction sites. I couldn’t bare that they would just share the same fate. I told myself, if I couldn’t send him through school, then for the rest of my life I would be responsible for him. I can’t abandon him the way things were. Now he’s a US citizen and doing well for himself. So growing up poor, I just wanted to be better off than I was.

What were the priorities in your budget then?

The first one would really have to be the amortization of the house. We used to live at the back of the house of my mother-in-law. It was such a small space. Eventually we had to move out of that and my husband was able to find a low-cost house in Cavite. It was only P200,000 but we didn’t even have that kind of money saved. So he had to borrow money from his boss. Getting a loan is something degrading, it’s like you have something hanging over your head and people tend to treat you differently when you owe them. That was really the first one on our list.

Loans should be paid and it was important to save for the kids’ tuition fees. Every 3 months, my husband received a bonus of P6,000 which we paid for their college educational plan.

How different do you view your finances now that you’re earning more than you did before?

Before, I can’t even buy myself clothes! I would joke that I would rather buy my kids’ needs before I got myself a new set of underwear. Now we are able to enjoy a different lifestyle. Before, we would just eat outside every pay day, the most expensive that we can afford is Max’s. Now we can go enjoy fine dining. I never even imagined that we would one day live in a condo, and in Makati, of all places! 

I also didn’t dream of traveling abroad, why would I when I knew the budget couldn’t afford it? It wasn’t even on my mind. Now, I must say that the countries most people dream of going to I’ve been to it already—Canada, US, England, Paris, Brazil, Iceland. It’s because every year with my company, Sunlife, we travel four times annually. It’s part of the incentives for their top performers.

What were the difficulties of being a financial advisor when you were just starting out?

I had to work with my weaknesses. Seven years ago I lost all my confidence, because I was stuck at home for 14 years, and I even got cancer. I had to learn to talk to people, and to listen well to what they have to say. At first I was amazed and inspired by the earnings of the advisors at that time, I didn’t know how to achieve them, but what was important was that I knew it was possible. I looked at the top performers and I didn’t really see anything that made them special or extraordinary—we looked the same. So I said why not try what they’re doing?

At first, I really just wanted to get my husband life insurance. He was the only one working for our family so I had to secure my breadwinner. Then I started with two of my friends, whom are closest to me since they helped me graduate college. At first, I just asked if they can comment on my spiels and selling, but eventually they got their policies with me. I learned that people normally didn't like being sold to. In our business, the most important thing is the aspect of building relationships. We have to establish trust. I just tell my story, I engage in conversation and try to know about their life. I have that casual, subtle approach. I'm aggressive without people knowing it, that's how I can say that my clients really like me.

What do you think is the reason why Filipinos remain skeptical about insurance and investments?

Most Filipinos are not into the culture of saving. Usually, what they earn is for their spending, their needs for now. Some of them don’t feel like they can afford to look into the future—the concept of preparing for the future and saving for it isn’t something they can put in the budget now. Some of them, they don’t put importance to it because they don’t see its benefits right away. But I think now people are more financially literate, even social media platforms are being used to educate the public and more people are being open about these opportunities now.

Photos by Vinz Lamorena