As a thirty-something who considers herself to be self-aware, it was a shock to realize that my worst relationship is not with a family member, frenemy, or an ex – it is with money. With student loans and crushing credit card debt, I was forced to do some intense soul-searching on how I found myself in this situation with an Ivy League education, six-figure income, and no children or dependents.
Most of my mistakes stem from ignoring financial common sense and falling prey to the standard boogeymen – consumerism and our vicious culture of debt. But a good part of my financial behavior is at least partially rooted in my upbringing and my immigrant parents’ own relationship with money. The lessons they imparted, while well-intentioned, led to a financial attitude that I’m only now starting to address and correct.
Lesson 1 – Save, Don’t spend, Live Simply, and Buy on Sale
As the child of any immigrant knows – the goal is always to do better than your parents, to make the sacrifices they made for you worth it. Silently, I have been rebelling against these attitudes and compensating for the sacrifices I saw my parents make. Dad never, ever bought lunch, and Mom never, ever went to the salon. They shopped in cheaper neighborhoods, away from our expensive town. They didn’t just think twice, but three or four times before they bought anything. Dad had a full-time job and taught part-time, too. They reused every brown paper or plastic sandwich bag in sight, and we all had jobs in high school for pocket money.
My parents’ mantra to save, not spend, live simply, and buy on sale, while all good habits, didn’t exactly teach me how to be financially savvy, and if anything, made me uncomfortable with the importance of money in our lives. The financial independence I eventually gained meant being free of money’s influence, as well as my parents’ habits and expectations around it, and treating myself to the lunches and lipsticks they didn’t buy for themselves.
I longed to “look the part” (hello, my beloved Tory Burch shoes). Most of all, I wanted to express myself and please everyone at the same time. The end result has been that while I’m oddly careful about the little things (I hate buying water and reuse plastic sandwich bags), I’m inexplicably dismissive of the real costs that add up to living beyond your means. Now, instead of unintentionally rebelling against their ethos, I choose to adopt their overall vigilance around spending. This means that rather than just focus on the price of an item or service, I force myself to think more carefully about the scale of its impact to my finances.
Lesson 2 – Debt Is Ok
As one of three daughters born to parents who came from India to the U.S. in the late 1960s, I’m well-acquainted with both the comforts (safe streets and lovely libraries) and pitfalls (expensive educations and designer jeans) of middle-class life in a posh zip code. My parents’ academic careers enabled us to live in one of the best public school districts in the country, and while their professors’ salaries did not make them wealthy, their aspirations for us were high.
Living in our town was a prime example of the immigrant ethic – expensive, but worth it for the schools. The same could be said of my private undergraduate and graduate education – worth taking on debt for. In contrast to my husband’s midwestern upbringing, I accepted educational debt as a way of life, and never had a meaningful conversation about how to pay for school.
I now believe that debt can beget debt – once you are comfortable with one type, others, such as credit card debt, become easier to live with. In order to become motivated to reduce my debt, unlock the power of healthy debt creation, and turn around a vicious cycle, I have had to change my mindset to one that treats debt not as a permanent condition but as a defined problem with solutions and options.
Lesson 3 – Be Generous
Culturally, I experienced a deep tradition of giving in which affection and love were best demonstrated through gifts and material support. While this wasn’t behavior wasn’t superficial, it put pressure on everyone to sacrifice spending on themselves in order to be generous towards others.
Just as I longed for those Tory Burch shoes, I was also eager to give back, and I often overspent or was more generous than I could afford to be. It was never grandiose, but it added up. I saw my parents and their close friends live simply on a day-to-day basis, yet save for lavish weddings (my own big fat Indian wedding included). The discipline and contradictions of these values became a heavy mental burden I didn’t know I carried until now.
My parents taught me to live simply, be frugal, invest in areas such as education, and also to share and give generously. While I absorbed and rebelled against some of their ways, my overall behavior was one of mimicry – it did not come from a place of informed planning, decision-making, or even curiosity. I mostly mimicked my mother, who knew not to spend frivolously but did not have a lot of visibility into our finances, which were entirely controlled by my father.
As a woman, there is a gendered aspect to this which I’ll explore in another post. For now, I’m seeing how gaining control beyond small behaviors and making more strategic and impactful decisions is different from what I have been doing so far. Stay tuned as I share more insight and lessons throughout a journey that has turned out to be about so much more than just money.
What are some financial behaviors that you adopted from your upbringing? Have they helped or hindered your journey?
Written by our contributor: Suman Saran