Editor’s Note: Jeannette Bajalia’s father died when she was only 26, leaving nothing behind for her mother but a $545 monthly social security check. Jeanette explains how she stepped up to care for her mom, worked her way up from being a secretary—and still saved more than $1 million.
Growing up, I really didn’t have a relationship to money. Money was never abundant, so there was not much to manage back then. Rather, my family’s attitude was: you work to generate enough to keep food on the table and provide for the basic needs of a large extended family, including grandparents, who need support.
You see, I was the fifth daughter born into a family of immigrant parents who came to America for a better life. My parents couldn’t speak English when they arrived from Palestine, but they had an entrepreneurial spirit. My father started a business, a grocery store. I began to help him in this store in Jacksonville, Fla., at the age of 7. I learned early on how to run the family business and learned basic cash management concepts there.
When I graduated from high school at 16, there was no money in the family for college.
So I went to work as an executive secretary at a major insurance company the day after I graduated. I was expected to marry and have someone take care of me back then. Instead, I worked hard.
I moved into other clerical roles and found myself in middle management by age 21. That’s when I decided to go to college. Since I worked in insurance and underwriting, I wasn’t at all oriented toward financial concepts, but my company did offer a tuition reimbursement program and they paid for my degrees.
I majored in industrial psychology for my undergraduate studies. Then I majored in human resources management for my master’s degree. The tuition reimbursement definitely gave me the incentive to educate myself. In fact, the company paid for books if we got As. I made it a point to get As.
I went to college at night while working days at the insurance company. My biggest motivator was knowing that I needed to generate a lot of income to take care of two aging family members while saving for my future.
Then my father passed away. I was just 26. I learned he’d left absolutely nothing for my mother except for a $545 monthly social security check. And I inherited the financial responsibility of caring for my mother and great aunt.