Lessons From My Asian Parents About Wealth

What did my parents teach me about wealth? Nothing. Absolutely nothing — at least not intentionally. I was raised by immigrant parents who weren’t focused on thriving, but surviving, and who weren’t educated on wealth, like Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad.” So how did I make it and even become a wealth coach? By taking some of the day-to-day habits and values they instilled in me and modifying them for my business — and in some cases giving them a 180 overhaul.  

1. Give, give, give: In my family, it was all about giving, sacrifice and compromise. My parents always taught me, “You’re only a good person if you give. Constantly. Above and beyond.” Since then I’ve learned that generosity is important, but there’s a point where you give too much and there’s nothing left of yourself. You become the martyr, you end up exhausted, and there is nothing left to give other than dishes of resentment — not an effective way to become wealthy. While the spirit of giving is important, I now give within boundaries. I’ll give of my time, for instance, but limit myself to one volunteer function a week. My parents lent out money they never got back, whereas I’ll lend you knowledge so that you can make your own money that you don’t need to return to me.

2. Pack your lunch the night before: I hated having to pack my lunches in elementary school, but now I prep for my entire day the night before. I know exactly what’s going to happen: I’ve prepared my outfit, I have ensured enough buffer time between all of my meetings, and I know I can wake up peacefully, most everything handled. I hear people complain, “Oh, I’m tired, I’m going to bed.” The next morning, they jolt out of bed stressed out and start their day in a frenzy, feeling like they’re already behind. They’ve basically set themselves up to fail with an undercurrent of panic for the rest of the day. Even though I grumbled and grumbled about packing my lunch the night before, planning ahead pays off, because being calm is the key to my creativity and presence with clients.

3. Always turn the lights off and shut the water: Being efficient and running a very lean household is important, but my parents took it to an extreme. We were only allowed to take five-minute showers, and there was always shouting about turning off the lights and the water. My dad would even save the water he used from hand washing clothes to mop up the floor later. Growing up, all we could think about was “save money, save electricity, take the bus, clip the coupon.” I took that waste-not attitude and applied it to my business: There’s no fat in my business; there are no love handles. If there’s a leaky system, I change it, yesterday. Everything is smooth, efficient, and lean.

4. Save everything: My parents were pack rats. They saved everything, like empty Kleenex boxes, “just in case.” In case of what? I don’t know, they never told me. Before they tossed out a coat they cut off the zippers and the buttons. Today, I do the opposite. I run an almost completely paperless business. I have four 1-inch binders where I keep original copies of important documents. The only other things at my desk are my laptop, a yoga ball, a little stack of Post-its, and a few pens. Being paperless and lightweight means location-independence. It means freedom! I could be packed and ready for the airport in under 45 minutes if I needed to. Everything I possibly need is on my laptop, it’s synchronized to the cloud, and I have backups upon backups of everything.

5. Do what you must and do what you’re told: Growing up, I was taught to always do what I was told. Get a job to pay the bills, because you must, and get the right kind of job, because you’d be a disgrace otherwise. I always knew I was given four career options: doctor, lawyer, engineer, or failure. I picked the one that involved the least amount of arguments and blood, and I got my engineering degree. I aced it, practiced as a junior engineer for 89 days on a really neat project for the Vancouver Olympics, and resigned one day before my probation ended. Yes, I let go of a secure cushy job and pension. What I gained instead was my will to live, my freedom, and the expression of my life’s purpose on this earth. I had about six different careers after that, even a fancy one in NYC at the United Nations. But each of them, however glamorous or lucrative at the time, were missing a “je ne sais quoi.” It was when all of them merged into my now wealth coaching practice that I found THE business that will fuel my soul for the rest of my life. So I say, do what you love.

6. Turn clothes inside out before you wash them: I grew up believing, “Don’t want anything, because you’re not likely to get it.” When people would ask, “What’s your dream?” the answer was nothing. Why would I dream? I’m not going to get it anyways. I was somehow conditioned to not want, not ask, and then I wouldn’t be disappointed. Instead of buying a new shirt, I was taught to turn my shirt inside out before washing it (so that it lasts longer), wash it again, and reuse it. I still wash my clothes like this, like on autopilot.

Appreciating the longevity of products and not being wasteful is a quality, but taking that to an extreme and never upgrading any product can have a seriously negative impact on your business. A concrete example: I had my previous laptop from 2007 to 2012, a long time for a laptop. By 2012, it was damaging my business: It was slow, it was heavy. But I told myself I didn’t need a new laptop. My conditioning totally shot me in the foot. When I did finally buy a new one, I wondered why I hadn’t listened to myself sooner. Today, everything is Apple-ified and synchronized in the cloud. Sometimes you need to get what you want.

7. Save face: There’s this whole concept of saving face in Chinese culture, and the worst thing is to embarrass someone else. In our culture, it’s better to avoid and sweep things under the carpet so everyone can save face and look good. Unfortunately, not talking means we also don’t talk about stuff like money, sex, life purpose, or fulfillment. And since my parents didn’t communicate well, I had to guess what they were thinking. A happy side effect is that I’ve grown very sharp when it comes to reading people, body language, or mood, and figuring out what’s not said. As a wealth coach, I can even read clients’ minds — I know what they’re thinking, what they’re not saying or what they’re not admitting to themselves. It’s an asset in my profession!

8. Fix things around the house: Because we never threw anything away, we always fixed things around the house, which fostered resourcefulness in me. I know how to change a car’s oil and renovate an entire kitchen. Not having much growing up has taught me to think outside the box: With what I have, I’ll always find new and clever ways to use what I already own, like using office software for audio editing and blogging software for data management. And if I run into a tech roadblock, I take a DIY approach and just Google how to fix it. Rarely do I ever spend time lining up at the Apple store for tech support and waste time going to school to learn a new software. Getting really crafty with what I already have saves me tons of money.

9. Education and achievement are of the greatest value: To my parents, education meant academia: pursuing a master’s degree, PhD, etc., the more letters after your name the better! Double the points if you married a man with lots of letters after his name too! They valued achievement to such a point that I couldn’t come home with a grade of 99. They’d ask where that 1 percent went. It was like I had to be the proof that made their immigrating to the West worthwhile. It was brutal… we were not rich growing up, so I knew I had to pay my own way if I wanted to go to university by getting scholarships and internships. It drove me to work really, really hard. At some point, it created this achieve-aholic monster! If I wasn’t in the newspaper twice a year, I was nobody; I felt I had accomplished nothing. I had to get the trophies, the plaques, the ribbons. Just writing about it stresses me out. It’s what drove me, for the longest time. And then at some point, it was like I had fallen off a cliff — I couldn’t sustain the achieve-aholism. It was no way to live.

Today, you would never see me studying in an academic setting. Instead, I value and express the love of learning my way: through hiring the world’s top coaches and mentors; through leadership retreats, business workshops, and self-development books. “I’m learning my way” is the message.  

Tina Chen is a member of the DailyWorth Interface program. Read more about the program here.