Five Ways My Poor Mom Set Me Up for a Rich Life

How My Poor Set Me Up for a Rich Life

Compared to today’s parenting ideals, my mom broke every rule in the book, whether she knew it or not.

  • She was illiterate, so there were no books in the house.
  • She didn’t believe in babysitters, and left my sister and me home alone when we were as young as four and six.
  • She didn’t know she was supposed to play with me when I was a baby, so I sat in my playpen alone.
  • She didn’t have a plan for what my time off looked like, so instead of camps or paid activities, I spent my summers watching brain-rotting teen soaps.
  • She let my sister and I grocery shop for ourselves; I ate so many sodium-loaded TV dinners I’m surprised I’m not dead already.

I know what you’re thinking: this woman deserves to be hauled away by Child Protective Services. How dare she leave her four-year-old home alone? That’s neglect. And yet, I choose a different perspective. My mom’s unorthodox style, inadvertent or not, fostered invaluable skills that have helped me thrive, both in life and financially.

Say, what?

Yes, you heard right. My mom’s laissez-faire parenting style has shaped (in many positive ways) who I am today. Coming from a poor childhood, it’s hard to deny that I’ve gone up a rung or two on the socioeconomic ladder. My life now is almost embarrassingly excessive. I work a white-collar job where I get to sit in a cushy chair all day. I have the luxury of being able to joke around with my coworkers or browse Pinterest online here and there, and STILL get paid. I make more money than my mom could ever dream of. For the past three years, I’ve flown on an airplane at least once a year. I don’t even do my own laundry anymore.

Make no mistake, this post isn’t a lecture about privilege. Not everybody would react the same exact way to my circumstances, and not everyone could. But a financial story without the parents’ story, to me, is an incomplete one. Most people’s financial stories revolve around parents teaching kids concepts, like savings, investing, and compound interest. But not every virtue has to be a formal “teachable moment.” Lessons can be absorbed in other ways. And the best financial lessons have nothing to do with money. Skills and habits? They deserve to shine, too.

So, let’s see. If my mom seemingly did everything wrong, then what did she get right? Here are seven skills I learned that help me live a rich life.

Resourcefulness

My mom didn’t take my problems away from me. They were my own to solve. In middle school, my teacher assigned a project where we had to interview our parents on 1970s pop culture. A wave of dread came over me, and then slight panic. To say this project was not in my mom’s wheelhouse was an understatement. With her limited English skills, American pop culture was a no-go. What to do? I decided I’d knock on my neighbors’ doors and interview them instead. When few neighbors were home, I walked to the hospital up the street and interviewed the receptionists and nurses. Result: I completed my project, and my teacher praised me on my creativity. As I got older, I’ve kept my eye open to new opportunities and for ways to think outside of the box. Like in middle school, when I wanted to look stylish on a budget, thrift stores were a treasure trove. Or in college, when I shopped for brand-name clothes at TJ Maxx that I knew people would buy, I started an eBay side hustle. Or when I lived in an old house with my friend, and we hated the idea of buying new furniture. On the most popular moving day for college kids, we drove to the dumpsters by the campuses, and found everything we needed for our house, totally free.

Self-Reliance

In second grade, every kid had to submit a recipe for the class book. Well, when we each got a copy of the book at the end of the year, guess who’s recipe was the only one that was not like the others? That’s right. MINE. As I flipped through, I was horrified to see the following:

  1. My recipe read like it was written by a second grader. Because it was. All the other recipes looked like they were written by adults.
  2. I didn’t know you were supposed to list the ingredients first, and the instructions second. Mine dove right into the instructions.
  3. My recipe was for blueberry muffins from the box, because that’s the only baking we did at home. Everyone else’s recipe was from scratch.

It never occurred to me that I should ask my mom for help with this. I’d been managing myself from such an early age that the thought never popped into my head. No one supervised when I went to sleep or when I woke up. Most of the time I’d be late to school and forged my own late notes for homeroom. I wrote down my homework assignments and their due dates, sometimes mixing up the dates and suffering the consequences of bad grades. I packed my lunches with my own selections, sugary snacks without an ounce of nutrition. All parent notes sent home were vetted by me, and then signed by me, because my mom’s handwriting looked like a first grader, and I thought my teachers would never believe it. A junior in high school, I swiped my mom’s tax return from her cabinet and filled out the financial aid forms myself. All of these things gave me a sense of personal responsibility. If I messed up, I had to deal with it. More importantly, I learned how to INITIATE. If I want something, I’ve got to make it happen for myself. Because I’ve been self-sufficient for so long, decisions that will benefit me in the future have been no brainers, like, saving up for my own wedding, or saving aggressively for retirement so I’m never a burden to anyone.

The Ability to Take Risks

Because my mom earned measly wages, she made up for it with her work hours. “Overtime” was her favorite word, and she sometimes was gone 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. My sister and I often found ourselves in a real-life version of Home Alone, minus the burglars. Instead of feeling neglected, we were excited about the possibilities:

  • What’s really in that scary basement? Let’s find out!
  • I’m hungry! What can I eat? Let’s open up the fridge and see what kind of weird food combos I can put together!
  • How have these roller skates been hiding in this closet this entire time? Even though they’re five sizes too big, I’m gonna put them on anyway and skate around the house!

When your parent leaves you home alone from an early age, and she trusts you won’t burn down the house, this does something to your brain. You start to trust yourself. That you are capable of doing things. That you’re going to be OK. Because of this mindset, many risks don’t scare me. I’ve travelled alone to places where I don’t speak the language. I’ve moved to big cities where I hardly knew anyone. I’ve quit jobs without having another lined up. When you start from the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Modest Standards

Like most immigrant families, our lives were simple: there were no restaurants, no vacations, no money regularly spent on entertainment, and no unnecessary extracurricular activities for the kids. Imagine how it might be if I got to go on regular vacations, had multiple activities after school, if I got to eat out at fancy places and live in a McMansion, all while being sheltered from how that lifestyle was being funded. Well, if that were me, post-college, I’d probably go into debt trying to maintain that lifestyle, too! I’m grateful for the simple life I had, because it has made me realize that I don’t need much to be happy. It sounds silly now, but I honestly thought I had “made it” when I was making $43,000. I was living with my best friend in an Instagram-worthy apartment, had a solid job with coworkers I genuinely liked, and my mom was within a 2-hour drive. What more did I need? Sure, I have extras now, like expensive clothes and international vacations, but I know that they are just thatextras. And if I ever needed to downgrade my lifestyle, I wouldn’t get that mad.

A Strong Sense of Self

This one is the most important of all. No one ever told me, “Hey kid, you can do it.” There were no gold stars, no chore charts, or pats on the back for a job well done. You know what really matters? It’s so simple, you’re going to laugh. A hug every day. My mom hugged me when she came home from work, and tucked me into bed every night. She never ever made me feel like a burden. Even though she worked a lot, I know there was a reason behind itto support us kids. One winter, in elementary school, I was sent to the nurse’s office who checked my hair for lice. Of course I had it. The nurse called my mom to come pick me up. An hour went by. Then two. The nurse asked me, “Are you SURE your mom is coming?” I was resoluteshe was. And sure enough, my mom emerged in her purple Salvation Army coat, dusting off the snow from her white knit cap. She had walked all the way from work in the snow. I never had any doubt she’d come through. While it was impossible for her to show up every single event, she always came when it mattered. Observing other parents around me, I’ve seen with my own eyes parents who don’t give a damn about their kids. There’s no warmth or smiles. They don’t yell at you when you don’t come home in time. When you know your parent cares about you, it’s amazing what that does to your self-esteem. A strong sense of self helps you stay away from potheads in school, because you want to do better. It helps stave away impulse shopping, because you don’t need to shop to feel good about yourself. And to stick to your priorities, so you can spend your money on those things, and not on the things that don’t matter.

Actually, I lied before. That there would be no privilege here. There’s a reason why I mention my mom in almost every single post so far. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. Even if she didn’t hand me money for things, that doesn’t mean I didn’t benefit from her warmth and affection. Nope, there are no bootstrapping stories from me. Because not everybody gets a mom like mine, and that my friends, is my luckiest privilege of all.

What about you? How did your parents set you up to be rich?

Image: Unsplash.com

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  • Finance Patriot

    I don’t know if my parents set me up to be rich. If I followed their example, I would be struggling and poor. So in an odd way, their lack of skill motivated me to learn. In conclusion, by lack of their design, they set me up for success.

    I grew up in a family of five, but having complete freedom to wander and not even tell my parents where I was or when I was coming home (I always came home) was very much the norm. I was so far from micro managed that a kid in grade school wasn’t allowed to play with me because his mom showed up to our house and my mom didn’t know where we were. Oh, the nerve of my mom.

    • Yes, it’s interesting how people react differently to their circumstances. I’m glad you were able to figure out how to be successful, in spite of not having a great example to work from. Did you have some other sort of role models in your life to help guide the way?

      Sounds like your mom was a fan of the free-range parenting style, same as me. Although my mom definitely cared when I came home too late and would sometimes follow me to my friends’s houses. I’m always grateful I had a lot of freedom as a kid: to go outside and make up games, ride my bike, and find other kids to hang out with. Living in the city, it’s impossible to do without some sort of management. Instead we have scheduled “play dates”.

      • Finance Patriot

        Not really, my parents were my main role models. I just paid attention to things on TV like the stock market and said, “I want to be rich like them.” Since I never had a lot of things growing up, I’ve never desired those things either, but money is something I always desired to have, and I worked for that goal over time.

  • Sounds like my mom lol! She’s the typical Chinese parent, lacking the framework of parenting but has a lot of substance and devotion.

    It’s quite common for a lot of Asian Americans who grew up poor to self analyze in such a way. I haven’t really been able to open up yet and no way on paper. Stuff like this is hard to write. It takes strength to write personal things.

    • Glad you can relate! I wonder if you also had a flip flop ready to be thrown at your head when you misbehaved. Yeah, my mom still basically treats me like a baby, which is really sweet and makes my friends super jealous.

      I’m sure that when you find the strength, your readers would love to hear your story 🙂

  • This is an amazing, powerful, post – thank you for sharing it! Your themes of resourcefulness and self-reliance resonated with me. I grew up in a household where we talked about money a lot, which helped my financial literacy, but I also grew up solidly blue collar.

    I was responsible for a lot as a little kid and didn’t realize how unusual that was until I got to college and few of my classmates had been employed before! I had been working paying jobs since the age of 13 and doing neighborhood jobs (babysitting, etc) since the age of 8.

    Thanks again for this powerful post! xoxo

    • Hi, FF–and thanks for stopping by!

      Yes, I had no idea that how I grew up was abnormal, either. At all. And like you, I didn’t realize these things until college. It was quite a shock for me to go to college and see my roommate still calling her mom to help her with her homework…And my professor telling me I grew up in a blue-collar town. I had no idea.

      Thank you for sharing your experience. Looking forward to reading more about it on your blog!

  • pomegranate seed

    This reminds me of a great post on another FI blog – http://www.millennial-revolution.com/build/how-growing-up-poor-made-me-a-bad-ass/