What My Immigrant Mom Can Teach You About Money

How an Immigrant Does Money

My mom thinks that if she had $1,100 a month she’d be able to retire rich. That’s just $13,200 a year. To most people reading this that amount is poverty level. You need millions to retire, right?

My mom and I have this tradition: since she can’t read or write, she puts any unfamiliar mail aside, waits for me to come visit, so I can then read the mail and explain to her what it says.

This last time, she got a letter from Social Security. The letter showed a chart of how much she was eligible for if she retired. I explained that if she retired right now, at 62, she’d get a little over $1,100 a month. But if she waited until she was 65, she’d get $1,500 per month.

“So, what do you think?” I asked.

She thought for a second and said, “If I had the $1,100, then that’s rich enough.” In her mind, that’s $1,100 she wouldn’t have to work for. It’d be enough to cover her basic needs. What else would you need?

Aside from social security, my mom has saved up a high five-figure sum in 401k funds, plus five-figure amounts set aside for both my sister and me.

And yet. She has never made more than $14 an hour. She was the breadwinner, and worked to support a family of four. When I was little, my dad got fired from his job one day and never went back to work. Then he passed away when I was a teenager. Still, us kids never wanted for much of anything. We lived a life of amazing privilege: a steady roof over our heads, full bellies, and parents who wondered about us when we went out at night.

You’ve seen the startling headlines. That nearly half of Americans don’t have an extra $400 laying around in case of an emergency. And most Americans have little saved for retirement. In my mom’s age group, the median amount saved is a paltry $17,000.

So, how is it that an illiterate, low-wage earning immigrant has managed to surpass these Americans?

Let’s start from the beginning.

Coming to America

Most people would say my parents came to America with the most unfortunate circumstances: they didn’t speak any English, were uneducated, and didn’t have a penny to their name. Coming from a tropical country, also unfortunate was the cold, snowy area they landed in: a small, working-class, predominantly white city, because the local church folks brought them there, and my parents didn’t know any better.

My parents arrived right a few weeks before Halloween, spooked by the ghoulish decorations plastered on people’s windows and lawns. Did Americans worship different gods?

My dad tried Wrigley’s gum but swallowed it, not realizing it was meant for chewing only. My mom reluctantly tried her first slice of pizza, but promptly threw it up. To an outsider, the “cheese” bore a striking resemblance to mucus.

Despite these rocky beginnings, my parents learned that their new home would provide safety nets they had never had before. Things like government assistance for low-income families, health insurance, buses to take your kids to school.

Their new country was brimming with possibilities.

My parents soon got their first jobs earning a couple bucks an hour: my dad assembled shoes parts at a shoe factory, my mom ironed little tennis skirts at a sweatshop. A proud woman, my mom busted us out of welfare, stat.

That was the beginning, and here’s where my mom is at now. A very rough breakdown of her current budget:
Wages: $13.00/hour
Paycheck Breakdown
$166 (10%) – 401k
$200-$300 – Savings Account
$400 – Rent (Total rent is $800, but she splits it with my uncle, who’s her roommate)
$200 – Food
$100 – Utilities
$90 – Life Insurance
$55 – Car Insurance
$50 – Gas
$50 – Extras

With such low wages and a family of four to support, it’s not hard to wonder: how is saving even possible? Here’s how she did it.

Understand Why You’re Saving

If you have nothing to save for, then why would you save? For my mom, her why for saving never wavered: she wanted to give her kids a better life. It was always her goal to set aside money she could leave as a legacy, so delayed gratification was in full effect for almost everything. If buying something meant it would compromise her kids’ future, it was a pretty easy no.

Pay Yourself First

Almost every time my mom got a paycheck, she’d first deposit some of it for savings, and then use the rest for bills, etc. She couldn’t save every time, but she consistently banked money every month, no fail. Having an emergency cushion in the bank made her feel secure and came in handy many times over the years. Like when my parents didn’t know life insurance was a thing and then my dad passed away suddenly. Funeral costs could be a huge burden for many people, but my mom already had money in the bank to pay for it. (And yes, my mom immediately signed up for life insurance after that happened.)

Don’t Spend What You Don’t Have

Credit cards were a way to spend money you didn’t have, so my mom operated on a cash-only basis. My parents’ first car, a blue Subaru, was paid for in cash. My mom has since bought a few more brand-new cars, with price tags as high as $18,000 per pop. But she’s never missed a car payment. Not once. This has allowed her to build up good credit despite never having a credit card. And if she got into trouble, she had enough in the bank as a cushion because she consistently paid herself first. And having a credit card hasn’t sparked a spending craze, either. A few years ago I added her as an authorized user to one of my cards so she’d have something in case of an emergency. She’s used that card maybe twice.

Get Creative with Childcare

My parents came from a culture that believed that if you loved your kids, you’d never leave them with strangers, so hiring babysitters was out of the question. One plus side of working factory jobs means that there are multiple shifts to choose from. My mom and dad worked different shifts so someone was always home to watch us kids when we were little. They never spent a cent on childcare costs.

Define Your Own “Necessities”

Instead of buying what her friends were buying, like mobile homes, stereo systems and flashy clothes, my mom spent only on what she felt were true necessities. That meant eating out at McDonald’s was a rare treat and vacations were never taken. And kids’ expenses weren’t necessities by default. Saving up for your kid’s wedding wasn’t important. We went clothes shopping for school just once a year, didn’t participate in any paid activities, and didn’t go to the doctor unless we were sick. For example, a common cost parents pay for is braces. My sister and I both had jacked-up teeth but my mom shrugged off the idea of paying for braces. If it wasn’t hurting us, it wasn’t a necessity. I paid $5,000 for my own braces as an adult.

Truly Prioritize

If you have five priorities you have no priorities. My mom would have loved to have bought a house; instead, she always rented. Putting money down for a house would have wiped out any emergency savings she had. Instead she spent money on reliable cars to get to and from work to earn money and de-prioritized everything else.

Socializing Doesn’t Have to Cost Money

Needless to say, money spent on things like movies and amusement parks was close to nil. But that doesn’t mean we were anti-social. My sister and I played outside, learning to ride our bikes ourselves, and looking around for kids in the neighborhood to hang out with. Often times, we were having so much fun outside we’d get bummed out when our parents called us in for dinner. And my parents didn’t just stay at home like hermits, either. They’d often go eat and party at their friends’ houses until late hours in the night.

Seize Opportunities at Work

Whenever my mom saw an opportunity to work overtime, she took it. Being paid MORE for the same amount of work? Hell yes. When you can’t read or write, what other dead-simple way is there to make more money? I have no idea how she did it without passing out, but one year she somehow worked 84 hours a week, more than doubling her wages. And the work wasn’t sitting down in an air-conditioned office, either. It was rote work where there was no downtime and you had to do the same exact thing over and over. She didn’t complain once.

Pool Your Resources

This concept of relying on a network stems from my mom’s “it takes a village” culture, and is one of her biggest advantages. When my parents first came to America, they had no friends. But eventually more and more immigrants just like my mom started moving to our town. Soon she had a network to rely on. She and her friends often cook huge batches of food and drop off leftovers at each other’s doorsteps. Just because. When my mom won a new TV at work, my husband and I were useless at helping her set it up. No problem. She dialed up her most tech-savvy friend and she was up and running in minutes. When my mom wanted to have a separate traditional wedding for me, I worried about how much money she would spend. But when I showed up and saw a 15-foot table topped with platters of homemade food, I knew she’d tapped into her resource network to spend virtually nothing on the wedding.

Weekends Aren’t for Relaxing; They’re for Side Hustles

You don’t know how many times I call my mom at 9pm and get no response. That’s because my mom and my uncle spend their time after work going fishing to make extra money. Yes, fishing that same lake that you and I would just walk past without a second thought. They dry the fish and sell them in bags to their network of friends. My mom also set up a rogue garden in the front yard (sorry, landlords!). She not only saves money by using the vegetables for her own cooking, but again, she also sells them to her friends. For example, one bag of hot peppers goes for $40. Not only do these side hustles fuel my mom’s entrepreneurial side, but they’ve earned her a couple thousand dollars a year.

Practice Gratitude

Using creative tools, like pooling resources and side hustles, my mom has been able to save a nest egg, despite her circumstances. While she hasn’t been able to save up a million dollars like others have, she chooses to see herself as “rich.” Because she’s never needed much money to be happy. She hasn’t lived a life of sacrifice, but one of abundance. Imagine viewing American life from an outsider’s perspective. Instead of having to slaughter your own cow for food, you can go into a grocery store and buy whatever you want. All that brightly-colored food lined up neatly in rows. Your kids don’t have to walk three miles under the beating sun to get to school. You can prance around a field and not worry about accidentally stepping on a bomb and blowing your legs off. That’s amazing!

So I’ll leave this with a set of questions:

Why do we feel like simple living is a life of deprivation?

What if no one drank the Kool-Aid for what’s necessary in life?

What if you change your expectations of what you’re supposed to have?

What if you stop and realize, that you’re rich, as you are?

There’s value in looking at things from an outsider’s perspective. What if we pretended like we were new immigrants arriving to America for the first time? Would we still think we need all the things we have? And I guarantee that if you think about seeing pizza for the first time, from a foreigner’s eyes, it’s not nearly as appetizing.

Image: Unsplash

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  • Everything you wrote is so heartfelt and genuine that I started tearing up. Your mom is a boss and so similar to the way my mom thinks.

    We recently sorted out my dad’s social security letter (they also leave mail for me) and we had that very conversation. My parents used to work in garment factories when they first arrived in America. They even used to bring my brother and I there to wait for them to finish work because what is a babysitter? And we loved it-we thought it was a “playground” and their colleagues were always kind enough to buy us McDonalds (which were a luxury to us). It took my mom 20 years to finally afford a house and she now lives happily in the suburbs.

    Your mom really seemed to make the most out of every opportunity that came her way and even created her own. A true entrepreneur.

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for this!

    • My mom is always hustling. Like if we go to some kind of hiking spot or national park, she’s sizing up the number of tourists, asking me if I can get a permit so she can sell food from a cart!

      Your story of the garment factory and the playground sounds so familiar to me. My mom used to bring us to her factory and we’d play outside on dirt mounds covered in broken glass and stuff. Then I’d find random scraps to bring home and try to make my own toys. Your mcDonald’s meals were for me tuna fish sandwiches from the vending machine! So great your mom bought a house! Sometimes I feel sad that I’ve never lived in a house before (because really, who hasn’t?), but for the most part I choose to feel grateful for the things I DO have.

  • GYM

    Your mom sounds tenacious and so sweet. I like your tradition with your mom where you hell her read the mail. The stories of when they first arrived to the US are lovely, thanks for sharing. Sorry to hear that your dad passed away, your mom is very strong to raise you guys as a single mom from your teenage years to adulthood.

    • Thanks, GYM! Yes, my mom is exceptional. A knew a few of her friends that had similar circumstances but wouldn’t have been able to achieve what she has! I just hope some of her tenacity rubbed off on me 🙂

  • Dr. Curious

    That’s an incredible story, and contains loads of fantastic personal finance advice that was learned from EXPERIENCE, not books or blogs. I’d love to meet your mom, she sounds like an incredible woman!

    I’ve lived in parts of the developing world for a few months at a time, and I think the “reverse culture shock” when I return to the U.S. is most profound at the grocery store. It is friggin’ ridiculous the variety and abundance of food we have at our fingertips, and we take it for granted.

    • It’s funny, my mom was railing on my uncle the other day for leasing a car (which is “stupid” in her terms) and for not carrying out the terms before buying a new car. So I love the idea of learning from experience and observations rather than through books or blogs.

      You’ll have to get in line to get some face time with her–she’s really popular at work. I even get a little annoyed some younger women at work call her “mom”!

      I’ve spent some time in the developing world as well, and man, does it make you realize how much we take for granted here. It always stings me when I see perfectly good food being thrown away or when people are very picky eaters. Imagine if you didn’t have a choice in what you ate?

  • Serenity he

    I love, love this post lol. This hit home in so many ways. Your mom is an every day hero. My parents,too, worked blue collar jobs, I remember they would sew till wee hrs in the morning and get up before the sun comes up to sew again. I remember having to go to their factory after school and cut threads from the clothes they sewed. my friend and i marveled at how our immigrant parents were able to raised us with so little $, when we feel like we’re struggling with 6 figure incomes. One thing I wish my parents did was keep more of their money. They’re great at being frugal but not so great at keeping the money they saved. They just bought another brand new van and i’m like why can’t u just buy a used one like me? my dad reasoned that for $12k more, he gets a brand new one. 🙁 My parents would be so well off now if they hadn’t inflate their lifestyle. “sigh”
    Anyways, your mom is awesome. tell her we said so haha.

    • Hey Serenity,

      Yeah, it amazes me how some of our parents work so hard without even a single complaint. I’m glad you were able to go to the factory where your parents worked to see what they did. Sometimes I feel like it helps the kids appreciate their parents more, if they see how hard they have to work. I definitely didn’t ask for very much at all as a kid, because I was very well aware there wasn’t much money leftover for stuff.

      I know what you mean about wondering how the heck parents raised us on so little. It’s so laughable how much money we make these days, and sometimes I complain how I can’t afford to buy an apartment in NYC for $800k. So ridiculous!

      I really wished my parents had more financial literacy. Like, they should have invested their money better, but there isn’t much to be done about that now.

  • Done by Forty

    As the son of an immigrant mother, I love everything about this post. My mother was lucky to come here with an associate’s degree from the Philippines, and always told us to pay ourselves first, to impress the bosses at work and jump at opportunities.

    It took a while for it to stick, but we wouldn’t be thinking about financial independence by forty if it weren’t for my immigrant mother.

    • I’m glad you’re able to give credit to mom where it’s due. I feel many times us PF bloggers leave our parents out as a factor of our success. Like you, my upbringing and specifically my mom played a huge role in anything I’ve been able to achieve, even if I wasn’t gifted anything financially. And how lucky you are to have specific money lessons from mom! Mine never taught my anything per se, but I was able to observe what was happening around me.

      Hope to see you around here more often 🙂

  • You’re mom sounds like an amazing lady! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be “successful” and have an “abundant” life. The simple life is often seen as a revolutionary, counter cultural act (at least by outsiders to the movement). But, I think it’s just about understanding that you probably need a whole lot less than you think to be happy. Perspective is everything!

    • She so, so is. I lucked out in the mom lottery, no doubt. She even got her citizenship a few years ago by listening to audio tapes. Do you think she’s going to let illiteracy get in her way? No way in hell.

      Totally agree with you on perspectives and what an abundant life means. Sometimes it seems like if you can’t buy a latte every day it’s like OMG, I’m so deprived. And it’s like man, buying Starbucks every day doesn’t enter the picture for many people in America still.

  • I absolutely loved this! We live in such a rich country and take literally everything we have for granted. This is why I’m so grateful for serving in the military. I was forced to go to parts of the world where people would kill to live like OUR poor people. It certainly gives you a better perspective which, unfortunately, is also easy to forget during the daily grind. Thanks for the reminder. Your mother was and is a great example for others to follow. She, to me, is the epitome of greatness.

    • Thanks, Darren! Yes, my mom is pretty great (totally unbiased opinion, hehe). She really focused her decisions on what was best for her kids and never complained about it even once. I also feel grateful for having seen how people live in developing parts of the world. Like my mom brought tons of women’s clothes to her village, and everything got snapped up in seconds, by both men and women. And here in America all we do is buy cheap stuff and then throw it away. We’re all guilty of it, but it definitely puts things in perspective when men are willing to wear women’s clothes because they can’t afford anything else.

  • Frugal Hackers

    I love this so much. We really do take so much for granted living in America, and hearing a different perspective is a great reality check. We’ve normalized such a high consumption lifestyle here compared to the rest of the world. I read this recently: “If everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average US citizen, four Earths would be needed to sustain them” http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33133712

    • That’s an insane statistic, although there seems to be some small movements with minimalist and sustainability lately. Maybe in a zillion years those will move the needle.

      100% agree with you that high consumption is normalized and would love for folks to realize that simpler lives aren’t necessarily ones of deprivation. Thanks for reading!

  • omg I love this! This was my mom, except she worked a middle class job. I owe my work ethic to her and the fact I was able to transition into self-employment is because of my side hustles. I now think I have too many lol

    • Hey Sarah, thanks! I totally hear you about the work ethic. Both my sister and I are super hard workers, and I’m pretty sure it’s because we saw mom working like crazy. Hard work just doesn’t scare me at all. It does have its disadvantages, like you said–you can get spread too thin!

  • I in principle love the post idea and like that it is all about prioritizing and hustling but I also don’t advocate it on the basis that people don’t need all the stuff they think they need but end up working all these overtime hours and hours for it (fancy cars etc) with the idea that it is necessary for a good life.

    The one in particular I don’t enjoy advocating is working weekends. Weekend and if you aren’t at the poverty line is for family and relaxing so you don’t burn out.

    It is one thing to hustle, it is another to never have a weekend or take a vacation because of money. There is a fine balance to be struck here.

    The savings — yes I agree. But savings are also meant to be enjoyed & spent, not to be hoarded until you die not having touched or enjoyed a penny while your heirs live it up (glibly speaking).

    You do what it takes to get ahead but I caution everyone to think about what it is costing you — time watching your kids grow and learn, having silly Do Nothing days, depriving yourself for some goal that isn’t that important.

    Also as a side note taking the money now at $1100 is the choice I’d always opt for. Money in the hand early on is worth more than $400 in the bush later. Could always end up not living to see that day (knock on wood) and if that money is invested / spent, it is worth more today than tomorrow (inflation).

    • The story isn’t meant to be instructional, but to show that there’s another way of life for low-income people besides just scraping by and being miserable. Some people can live simply because they don’t value stuff like vacations, eating out, shopping, etc. It’s a matter of perspective. And if you aren’t educated or have any skills, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for you to earn extra money besides just working more hours. Nowadays, my mom likes her side hustle because it feeds her entrepreneurial spirit. She likes doing that stuff.

      I agree that savings aren’t meant to be hoarded, but at the same time, what if staying home and watching TV with your family makes you happy? I do think it’s worth re-evaluating whether the things that make us happy are because society tells us so, or because they truly make us happy.

  • This post really says it all. The concept of “enough” is when you’ve met the hierarchy of basic needs and can focus your energy on family and friends. Growing up blue collar in a rust belt town, life was much simpler. No cell phones and no cable teevee to constantly bombard you with what you don’t have.

    • Totally. I wish some people would realize that others live with WAY less, and yet, they’re still happy. If you naturally want less and are grateful for what you do have, it’s a lot easier to not overspend.

  • What an admirable life your Mother has and continues to live. She’s an inspiration. Thank you for sharing her story. Besos Sarah.

    • She’s definitely something 🙂 She continues to blow my mind with how independent she is despite her circumstances. Thanks for reading!

  • bh

    awsemoe article , this builds motivation for building nest egg.

  • Doll Hairs & Sense

    What an incredible lady your mom is! I can attest too that coming from humble and hardworking families can affect our outlook! Our upbringings have allowed my husband and I to see that as adults even though we don’t have “everything” we live lives of abundance!

  • Miss Mazuma

    Your mom is my hero. For real. I am USA born and love my country, but there is a lack of culture and community in many of our cities. I have spent a lot of time abroad and that is the one thing that is the most notable in comparison. Beyond that, your mom’s hard work and determination is inspiring. Though born here, both of my great grandmothers lost their husbands young. I grew up watching them and their frugal ways and I can’t think of a better education for kids. To be in a home without waste, to be creative with your resources, and to never complain about your lack of anything (not even a partner, though that had to weigh heavy on their hearts). Your mom is successful despite never having made a large income. This is what people who come to America come here for – opportunity. The American Dream isn’t always a dream – it can be a nightmare (those double shifts could NOT have been easy), but the outcome is worth it if you are willing to put in the work.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment 🙂 I feel genuinely privileged to have a mom who I truly admire–not everybody gets that. I agree: the lack of culture and community in many of our cities. I know some people don’t care for travel, and that’s fine, but it’s important to me to see how other people live, and not just in first-world countries, either! It helps to get a fresh perspective. One thing I have noticed in my mom’s village is that people in the neighborhood just walk into each other’s houses without knocking. Other times, a group of people would chip in to buy a cow to share for dinner. There’s a real community feel, and if people kept themselves silo’ed, like they do here, there’s no way they could make it. I know everything is relative, but sometimes I wish people here would realize how lucky they are, and that having “less” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re less happy. Sometimes the solution to problems is simple wanting less and being grateful for what you do have.

      You are so lucky to have known your great-grandmothers! And while their circumstances were unfortunate, I’m sure that having strong female role models shaped you into who you are today. And I totally agree that education for kids can be taken quite literally, like, bringing your kid to the bank to set up a bank account. But sometimes the best lessons come from just observing a way of life. I’m a huge advocate of working hard, and it’s no accident how that came to be 🙂

  • Piggy

    I want to be friends with your mom. <3

    • Girl, you’re gonna have to get in line. She’s very popular at work, and the younger women there call her “Mom.”

  • Hiya, nice to see a new face around here 🙂 Indeed my mom is quite exceptional. There are lots of lessons my sibling and I chose to ignore but hard work isn’t one of them. And like you, I feel like a modest upbringing has allowed me to be really appreciative of the things that I do have, and actually encourage me to be more financially independent. You never know when it could all go away. Thanks for reading!

  • Feel ya there. I’ve been reading my parents mail since I learned to read. Balancing check books at age 7… the life of a first generation child.

    • Glad you can relate. Some of us don’t just get to be carefree kids, but then we grow up being able to handle almost anything 🙂

  • Ksenija

    Wow! I loved this. It sounds like my grandma. I too am an immigrant, and I live by almost all the items you pointed out. I grew up during the war and that has been the best education ever. While my friends are laden with debt that makes their lives miserable, I am debt-free and able to save between 10,000 and 12,000 without feeling I am depriving myself or my family of anything. We truly live in the time of such abundance that I can’t understand how people don’t get how rich they truly are.

    • Hi Ksenija,

      Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I think many of our parents or grandparents put us to shame in terms of frugality. And they make it look so easy, too.

      Good for you for being to save money without feeling like you’re depriving yourself. I know it’s hard to go against the grain, but really, if we just change what the American Dream means us, I think many of us could probably save more, too. It’s just a change in mindset–one of abundance, and not deprivation (after basic needs are met, of course.)