7 Money Skills My Immigrant Parents Taught Me

I’m once again pleased to present another guest post from my good friend, Paula Pant of Afford Anything — the blog that believes money should never hinder your dreams. If you get a chance, stop by her site and check it out — you won’t be disappointed.

I’m Asian-American, straight off the boat — er, straight off the Boeing. My parents carried me to the Land of Stars and Stripes back when I was wearing diapers.

Since good ‘ol Mom and Dad didn’t launch their lives in America until they reached their 40s, they flouted traditional personal finance advice, which says you’ll be in big trouble if you don’t start young. They were solidly in their mid-40s when they opened a retirement account and bought their first home. So by all accounts, they should be suffering in retirement. But they’re not. Why?

Old-fashioned personal responsibility saw them through. Here are seven money skills my immigrant parents taught me:

7. Never Assume Someone Else Will Bail You Out

They had no family or friends to bail them out if times got rough. They’d have to rely on themselves. So priority number one was a hefty emergency fund. They didn’t call it an “emergency fund” — they’d never heard that phrase. They simply knew that if their car broke down, they couldn’t go to work. Then they might lose their jobs. That was not an acceptable option, so above all else they prepared for the unforeseen.

6. You Don’t Need to Leave the House to Be Entertained

I’m still surprised when I see families eating at restaurants or taking vacations together — we never did that. Yet we never felt poor or deprived. It simply didn’t occur to us to do that (at least, it never occurred to me) because we were having so much fun at home. Most evenings we’d just sit around the dinner table, long after the meal was over, talking late into the evening. Sometimes we’d play board games. Occasionally we’d watch TV. When we left the house, it was to play at the park. Restaurant meals were reserved for birthdays, when we went to the nearest budget franchise.

5. Don’t Buy Depreciating ‘Assets’ Unless You Absolutely Need Them

My parents shared one car for years, an impressive feat in a car-dependent city like Cincinnati where public transportation is slow and bike lanes are nonexistent. My dad rode the bus to work while my mom would run errands in the family car. When they finally did cave and buy a second car, it was a pragmatic choice: safe, reliable, and without a single bell or whistle.

4. A Nice Home Is Different From an Expensive Home

We never bought more home than we needed. Our first house, which we bought in the mid-1980s, is ranked by Zillow.com to cost $90,000 at today’s prices. That would have been $45,000 in 1985 prices, minus any appreciation on its value. Yet we knew the difference between a costly home and a nice one. We planted flowers in the front yard and hung a birdfeeder in the back. My mom kept the inside spotless. We invited the neighbors over for dinner regularly — nothing brightens up a home more than guests.

3. Spend Lavishly on What’s Important

There was one item on which my parents spent lavishly: my education. From Day One, I attended the best private schools money could buy. My dad hired professors from the local university to give me one-on-one math and science tutoring. When I won a scholarship to a reputable private high school, my parents encouraged me to reject it in favor of paying full price to attend a more prestigious high school. This idea is unpopular in personal finance circles, which question the “ROI” of your education. But my parents believed that education is priceless. They never viewed it as a financial investment but rather as the foundation for a well-rounded life.

2. Work As A Team

My parents approached the world as “we.” When one person’s income faltered, the other person stepped up to the plate. When one person became extremely busy, the other one accepted additional errand burdens. No one kept score. Their union was one of constant give-and-take.

1. Know Your Limits

While my parents were the King and Queen of Frugal — clipping coupons, growing vegetables in the backyard — there was one money-saving tactic they refused to do: buy used fabrics. Used cars and books were standard — my shelves were stuffed with pre-tattered Baby-Sitters Club books. But they drew the line at wearing used clothes or sitting on used furniture. As an adult, I don’t share that bar — all my furniture is used — but the broader point remains: know your limits. Decide your minimum bar and stick to it.

Photo Credit: Conspiracy of Happiness


    • 2


      @Ted — Actually, there’s in completely random order. I’ll let you, the readers, choose which ones are the most important. Different points seem to resonate with different people depending on their current situation.

  1. 7

    Sabz says

    Hi Len,

    This article described my grandparents!! As Indians, they migrated young when the country split. These are exactly the values they practiced and as a result, gave each of their children the best education. They died with very little money in the bank but had their own home and never ever had to ask for a bailout.

    Thank you for another great article. Paula, you brought back memories of my 2 favorite people in the world. May they rest in peace.

  2. 10


    This is a great post Paula. Many of these 7 items are the reason immigrants are four times more likely to become millionaires than American locals.

    We also made education a priority for our kids and sent them to private school. I believe it’s going to become critical in the future, because good employment opportunites are getting scarce.

    • 11


      7 times more likely? Wow, that’s crazy. Where did you hear that?

      I tried Googling that stat but I keep finding articles on Millionaire Next Door, which led me another interesting stat: entrepreneurs are 4 times more likely to be millionaires than people who work for others.

    • 13


      Ooh, good point. I hadn’t even considered that because, in our household, (non-mortgage) debt was simply not an option. Off the table. Not a choice. Case closed.

      Someone once asked me how I’ve avoided being in debt, and that’s my honest answer — it simply doesn’t occur to me to go into it.

      Although, now that you mention it, many of these habits — staying in and talking around the dinnertable, going to the local park on the weekends — are great practices for people who are trying to get OUT of debt.

  3. 15


    I experienced a similar upbringing. I thought it was because my parents grew up during the depression or was it that they were immigrants. It taught me a lot about values, savings, and determination.

  4. 17


    Good work, Paula. My parents lived by very similar rules as well. They never had a car (but then public transport in Bulgaria was reliable), they has a large garden where they grew all their veg and they didn’t think for a second that the world owes them a living. Thanks for reminding me.

  5. 19

    sewingirl says

    When my kids were younger we combined the board game/TV genre and had “full contact Jeopardy”! We would all be jumping around yelling out answers, and someone would have the encyclopedia on hand to try and beat the contestants to the right answer! And Wheel of Fortune was a high rolling gamble. We would bet poker chips on how many letters we’d need to solve the puzzle, and the evenings winner got to choose the bedtime snack. It was fun, educational and wild!

  6. 20


    Great common sense points.

    I can’t thank you enough for sharing your winning perspective on money and personal finance with the rest of us. I learn something new every time I stop by.

    Here’s another wrinkle on #7. The idea of “character” was once described to me as understanding that you can’t take some things back. Until you do something and then realize that it can’t be undone, you don’t know what character is. Some things just can’t be patched up with a simple “I’m sorry”.

    I think the lesson that it’s up to you to be sure that you don’t end up in a “game over” scenario is about as good a lesson as anyone can learn.

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