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

You May Also Like