What My Immigrant Family Taught Me About Money and Success

My parents, grandparents, and I moved to the United States in 1992 with everything we owned packed into 14 suitcases. We were $2,000 in debt after buying our plane tickets, and spoke no English. I was almost four years old.

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My parents were part of a wave of educated Jewish families who immigrated to America from the former Soviet Union in the ’90s. Along with their friends and family, they settled across the U.S. Some were doctors, lawyers, or engineers, and they all had to start over. My mother had a master’s degree in nuclear physics, but the only job she could find was doing laundry in a nursing home. My father, who has been building computers since he was a teenager, swept the floors at McDonald’s.

When my parents moved to America, they had to learn about credit cards, car loans, and 401(k)s — all on their own. As a child, I watched them lease a car, buy a timeshare, and get into credit card debt.

Through all their mistakes, my mom and dad shared what they learned. Here are the most important lessons they taught me about money and success.

Spend on What Matters to You
My grandmother — or Babushka, as I call her — is the most frugal person I’ve ever met. When we moved to America, she fell in love with yard sales. She still uses old sour-cream containers instead of Tupperware.

But my grandmother doesn’t live a life of scarcity, and her version of being frugal isn’t about depriving herself. Her apartment is overflowing with sewing supplies and her beloved kitschy art. She saved where she could and spent where she wanted. She taught me it’s okay to splurge on something that really matters, as long as I’m being frugal elsewhere.

Create Your Own Success
My dad always told me: "You can't expect to get what you want. You have to be the best and build your own success." But building success for us had a key caveat: We had to do it without a network.

As an immigrant, you often can’t rely on a community of connections. Instead, there’s a special drive that comes to you. Your success is built purely on you and the skills you’ve learned.

When my father got laid off a few years ago, he spent three weeks applying to jobs and learning new computer languages. For eight hours a day he taught himself new skills. Three weeks later, he got a new job. He didn’t have anything to fall back on, so failure wasn’t an option.

Go After What You Want
No matter what I’ve been interested in, my parents have always told me to chase my dream. Even — as my mother recalls — when I wanted to be fashion designer and couldn’t draw. When I wanted to be a lawyer, they encouraged me to do mock trial. When I decided to be a journalist, they suggested I just start writing.

In my family, it wasn’t enough to want to be something. You had to actively go after it to make it a reality. In high school, that meant shadowing other journalists, writing for my school paper, and subscribing to lots of magazines. Even though they’re proud of my accomplishments, my parents always push to keep growing and not settle. It goes back to the idea of coming here with nothing: Nothing is waiting to be handed to us. We have to work.

Talk About Money — Without Shame
My parents made money an open conversation, free from judgment. I knew my parents talked about money more than other people, but I didn’t realize it was tied to their immigrant experience. (In a 2014 survey by Wells Fargo, 44 percent of Americans said personal finance is the hardest issue to discuss.) 

As a family, we share how much we earn, how much debt we’re in, and the missteps we’ve made. My parents’ biggest dream for me is that I become more successful than they are. In their minds, the only way to do that is to share what they’ve done wrong so I can learn from their mistakes. They’re not too proud to talk about money if they know it’ll help me. 

Recently, my dad asked if I was glad they’d been so open about money. “Obviously,” I said. “Well if you have kids, hopefully you’ll talk to them about money,” he said. No doubt.

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