5 Great Money Lessons I Learned From My Immigrant Parents

by Amy Lu on 18 April 2014 (2 comments)

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My parents immigrated to the US, separately, in 1980 and ’81. They met, married, and started a family while they were still trying to navigate the unfamiliar waters of a brand new country.

Their immigrant experience is an integral part of who they are — and because they raised me, it’s a big part of who I am, too. I’ve learned many valuable lessons from them, including a few that involve spending and saving.

Forget the Joneses. Spend on what’s meaningful to you.

As a child, I envied my friends and classmates who, after a break from school, talked excitedly about their summer trips or Christmas loot. With no similar stories to share, I felt left out. I wondered, “Why can’t my family do that, too?” I eventually realized that my parents weren’t fundamentally opposed to fun; they simply had different priorities.

Instead of lavish vacations, we took short day trips to San Diego or Disneyland when out-of-town friends and family came to visit. Instead of gifts for a holiday we didn’t actually celebrate, the kiddos received cash to spend (or save!) as we liked for a holiday we did celebrate — Chinese New Year. And those memories of spending time with loved ones, no matter what we were doing or where, are among those I treasure most today because of what they meant to my family.

It takes a village — and sometimes the village lives under one roof.

For about eight years soon after immigrating, my parents lived with my dad’s siblings’ families and my paternal grandmother in a two-bedroom home. At the point of highest occupancy, there were three families (13 people!) sharing the house. It was a tight fit, but the benefits outweighed the lack of space and privacy. Household expenses were spread across the families, everyone had a hand in childcare, and (for better or worse!) there was always someone to talk to.

There’s no denying that a multi-family, intergenerational household can be difficult to live with, and it will undoubtedly cause strife in some families. But if the families involved don’t have any strong objections to each other, it’s an excellent way for everyone to save money on housing, utilities, groceries, and childcare. The families in my first childhood home eventually moved out, but we couldn’t have done so without living together — and saving together — first.

Always look for a bargain. They’re out there!

When my parents were growing up, haggling was a part of their day-to-day life. From rice to fabric to rare and wonderful iced treats, they made sure to find that sweet spot in a purchase where they and the merchant both came away happy. For my parents, there’s always some wriggle room on a price tag.

Haggling isn’t as common in the US — although it never hurts to try, especially in Chinatown or other markets where you’re dealing directly with a vendor. But there’s another term for it — negotiation — that works just as well when you want lower credit card rates or insurance premiums, or free delivery at your local furniture store. When there isn’t someone you can speak to, watch for sales, deals, and coupons. And if you can’t find a bargain for the exact product or service you want, look for more affordable alternatives, like Netflix or Hulu for your TV/movie fix. The bargains are out there — you just have to look for them!

Cultivate your network, for your sake and theirs.

Every night, my dad takes a few minutes to call a friend or a distant relative, just to chat. They’ll talk about what they’ve been up to, mutual acquaintances, the good ol’ days, and new karaoke technologies on the market. This is how my dad stays connected to his roots, as these are often old neighbors and family from China. It’s a great thing, too, because his connections have helped us save countless hours and dollars over the years.

My dad knows a good deal about general mechanical things and my mom is the most resourceful person I know, but when a professional (or semi-professional) is required, there’s sure to be someone in my parents’ extensive network that can help. We’ve gotten free car repairs, discounted tax accounting, home renovation advice, and we regularly exchange home-grown produce with various aunties. Of course, my parents are always happy to offer up their own services, as well.

It takes work to maintain relationships, but a little TLC goes a long way. Staying in touch with your friends and family doesn’t have to cost a fortune. That is why I like the idea of Skype Credit, which allows you to call mobiles and landlines in the U.S. or across the world at extremely low rates. That’s something my frugal parents can definitely appreciate.

Do it yourself — then pass it on.

Have I mentioned that my mother is the most resourceful person I know? Because she is. She’s had to be, raising three kids on a shoestring budget. But this isn’t something she developed on her own — in fact, the most resourceful person she knew was her own mother. They didn’t have many of the conveniences we enjoy now, so they needed to be creative to make life easier — and more affordable.

My grandmother could take a beat-up bucket that their neighbor has thrown out and turn it into a functional work of art. Every article of fabric and thread in the home — from clothes to curtains to a covering for their treasured radio—she sewed herself. My mom saw the magic that my grandmother worked with her hands, and sought to do the same. And while I’m not as much of a DIY whiz as the women before me, I love making things from scratch and finding cool new ways to use old cast-offs.

With raw materials often costing less than the finished product, every project you can do yourself translates to savings in your household budget. (Caveat: Some DIY projects can end up costing you more if you don’t know what you’re doing, so make sure it’s something you can handle! Otherwise, call on your network for help. See above.) If the passion for DIY — or even just the know-how for specific projects — is something you can pass on to your kids, other family, or even friends…all the better, all around!

The great thing about living with my parents (yes, I still do!) is that I learn something new from them every day. Of course, I like to think that they learn from me, as well. I’ve already taught my dad how to send e-mail; pretty soon, my parents will be ready to tackle DVD remote controls!

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Guest's picture

So true! One unfortunate side effect is that saving becomes a must, and spending is a sin. More often than not, they know how to save, but they forgot how to spend, especially on themselves. Didn't we save so one day we can enjoy it?

Amy Lu's picture
Amy Lu

I know exactly what you mean, David! If my siblings and I want to spend money on my dad, we're sure to encounter some resistance. (Less so with my mom, thankfully!)