I Resented My Immigrant Parents for Not Teaching Me About Money. Here’s Why I Was Wrong

A photo to accompany a column by Bernadette Joy Courtesy of Bernadette Joy
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I used to resent my immigrant parents for all the money lessons they never taught me. 

They never told me how to save or invest. They didn’t warn me about student loans or credit cards. Their idea of success was a big house and name-brand clothes. No wonder I ended up $300,000 in debt, right?

Now, one of them is gone. And as I look around at my life—a debt-free millionaire in my 30s, a thriving online business, a paid off home, a happy marriage—I realize they were just doing their best. And that they taught me more than I ever knew. I wish I could have learned that sooner.

The theme of this column is Mess to Million, and most of what I’ve shared are the mistakes I’ve made. What I’ve learned from being wrong, versus what I did right. Today, I want to share my experiences as a first-generation Filipina American. Not because I was successful in helping my parents financially, but actually quite the opposite. I hope you can find through my story some ways to help your parents financially more smoothly than I have. 

Pro Tip

This is the third column of a 5-part series from Bernadette Joy. In “Mess to Million,” she shows that you don’t have to be perfect to get rich. Follow @nextadvisor on Instagram for updates and live Q&As with Bernadette.

For too long, I resented that my parents did not teach me about money

I typically start my money classes by asking students, “What’s holding you back from crushing your money goals?” 

“Nobody taught me” is the most popular answer. 

For the first decade of my adulthood, I was guilty of that same response. There was no financial literacy education in my household growing up. My parents immigrated from the Phillipines to the U.S. with the American dream in mind. But as my mother would remind me, I was raised in a different culture than she was, and those cultural differences meant that she wasn’t in a position to teach me how money works in America. 

But for all the things that my parents didn’t teach me, there were things they did that I never gave them credit for. My father paid his younger brother’s college tuition, who subsequently paid for the next sibling, until all nine graduated from college. He worked his way up from being an accountant to an executive. My mother became a bookkeeper at a law firm. My mother-in-law recently retired from over 30 years as a traveling physical therapist, and my father-in-law graduated from nursing school in the U.S. after a career in accounting. 

All this only a few decades after there were signs in the U.S. that literally said, “No Filipinos Allowed.”

My father passed away this time last year, and only in these last few months did I realize that resenting my parents for their lack of financial literacy is not something I can continue to carry as an excuse. Both my parents and my husband’s parents made incredible money moves that I seriously doubt I would be able to make in the same situation: leaving rural areas of a developing nation to build careers, homes, and families in a foreign country. 

It only occurred to me now that they couldn’t teach us financial literacy because they were busy just trying to make ends meet. They were doing the best they could with what they knew.

When I finally started to teach myself about money, I didn’t know how to talk to my family about it 

Whether it’s a new restaurant or the most recent Korean drama I watched, when I find something that I love, I am super eager to recommend it to my friends and family. 

That’s how I felt when I saw my student debt number dropping from over $70,000 to under $30,000 in just a few months, after learning how to focus on my money goals and budget effectively. It was a game changer for my husband AJ and me. I could see the light on the horizon! I could start picturing our future without debt, and it was amazing. I thought, how great it would be if my parents, AJ’s parents, our siblings, and our close friends could all be debt free? What kind of vacations could we go on? How much less stress would we all feel? How much more time could we spend together?

But money conversations aren’t always welcomed. Back when my debt free journey was my life’s focus, I learned not everyone wanted to hear about it. I’ve sent financial books to my parents, only for them to collect dust on their coffee table. I invited family members to webinars I thought were interesting and invited them to come to the classes I taught. Most never came. 

In the beginning, I took personal offense to it. How could they not see that paying down debt is so awesome? It took me a while to realize that while I was ready to face my finances head on, it didn’t mean my family was, and I look back at how I was probably more annoying than helpful.

I didn’t know how to have conversations about retirement and estate planning with them 

At the same time, there were some conversations about money I needed to have with my parents. Now I know that instead of sharing everything I was doing, I should have been asking them questions about their own lives.

For example:

Do you have enough savings to retire? What happens when you retire?

What debts do you have now? Are you planning to pay them down? 

If there’s a medical emergency, how are all of us siblings supposed to take care of you?

What do you want to happen with your assets when you pass away? 

These are the questions I wanted to ask my parents for so long, but I was too afraid to ask. As my husband and I were getting our finances in order, paying down our debts, and starting to accumulate wealth, it became glaringly obvious that we had zero idea what our parents’ finances looked like. 

This created a lot of anxiety for me, especially because I knew that in Filipino culture, it is  implicitly expected that you take care of your parents, no matter your financial ability. 

Were they expecting us to pay for their retirement? Were they expecting us to pay for medical bills? How long would that be for? How would we be able to juggle that along with our own student loans, mortgages, bills, and retirement? Instead of bringing up the conversations, we avoided it for many years, and unfortunately when my father passed away, we were left with many unknowns.

So what can you do to better help your parents financially with the friction of cultural and generational differences? They say hindsight is 20/20, and so I can offer these suggestions that I’m working on implementing in my own life going forward.

Don’t underestimate the emotional support our parents might need around their retirements

I often repeat the phrase that personal finance is personal, and yet I forgot that applies to our parents. They are human beings too, after all. And often their personal money journey has elements of fear, shame, and guilt that they might not want to expose to their children.

Not wanting to talk about money, might be less about us and more about protecting themselves from embarrassment at times. Sometimes, it might not be about the money at all, but the other decisions that money questions bring up.

For the last few years, I kept asking my mother-in-law why she hadn’t retired yet, and why my father-in-law was always getting caught up in another entrepreneurial idea or money-making hustle when they are both in their 60s. Two things came up that were unexpected: they weren’t sure they had enough money to retire at all (despite having a financial planner), and my mother-in-law didn’t know what she would do if she were to retire. She was so busy working hard for so many years, that the idea of not working was actually more scary than exciting.

Since my husband and I now have a better understanding of what his parents are worried about, we are regularly having conversations with them, encouraging them in their exploration of retirement life, and planning more time to spend with them than we have in the past.

Share what you’re learning about money by walking the walk, not just talking the talk

We stopped trying to convince our parents and siblings to follow the path we were following. Instead we started sharing our financial journey by modeling the financial choices that worked for us. We diplomatically declined outings and vacations and withstood some mild teasing about us being “cheap” while we were paying down debt.

In short, we just learned to mind our own business.

Eventually, that tactic opened the door to the conversations we wanted to have. When I paid off my $72,000 of student loans less than a year after graduation, paid off our mortgage in six years instead of 30 years, quit my full-time corporate job to pursue a business venture, and started going on big trips that we used to forgo, our parents started to ask questions. It was only when they asked us how we prioritized paying down debt and learned to save money that they started sharing their interest. 

After hearing how much less stressed we were, and how we were years ahead on our retirement plan, my father started clipping articles from magazines about money and sending them to me in the mail, to show me he has been looking out for other ideas. And to my surprise, my in-laws decided to accelerate their mortgage payments and paid off their house after they heard we paid off ours, which freed up their ability to also retire.

Have your own estate plan, no matter how healthy or wealthy you are.

Sixty percent of Americans lack a will or proper estate plan, according to an AARP survey—with millennials like me having a higher rate of 78% without one. 

Now, my husband and I review our will and estate plan once a year, even though we’re healthy and don’t have children of our own. Interestingly, I find reviewing our estate plan each year is a healing way to have peace in my finances. It’s an annual reminder to review all our insurances, our assets, and the relationships that matter most to us. 

It’s one of the ways we know we can give our parents peace, to know that we have been thoughtful in the contingency plan for our wealth, without having to burden others with those tough decisions.

Have the tough estate planning conversations now for more peace of mind

As an unexpected side effect, putting this important documentation together for myself gave me confidence to have that scary conversation with my own parents. My parents didn’t want to put anything into writing, and so I can’t say the conversation was successful, but it at least led to some clarity in their expectations. 

One of the most important points of clarity was that I told them I didn’t expect or want any sort of inheritance. This led them to allocate their assets differently than if we did not have the conversation at all. They also expected that I would financially support other family members besides them, and we discussed how they could do that now, instead.

We were fortunate In the case of my in-laws, that they let my husband and his two brothers know about the documentation in place, and had a family conversation about it with them and the spouses, including me. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but I was so incredibly grateful for it. There was a sense of peace that the three brothers would not have to figure it out on their own. It also gave us as a family an opportunity to clarify what to expect, and how we could best respect their wishes—including some Filipino traditions we hadn’t known about before.

Remember that pursuing financial independence will ultimately help create more generational wealth

One of the critiques I often hear about the FIRE movement (financial independence, retire early) is that it seems a bit selfish. People think that FIRE diehards focus only on their own finances, squirreling away every penny they can for themselves, 

That approach doesn’t add up for many of my students who are first-generation Americans. They feel the pressures of the “sandwich generation”: to financially support aging parents, their own children, and their own money goals all at once. In particular, I meet a lot of other women of color who feel guilty for not meeting all those collectivist cultural expectations.

At the beginning of my  journey, the best I could offer my family was to pay for groceries or a few medical expenses here and there. Since then, my husband and I have been able to pay for a family vacation, to cover unexpected expenses when my father passed away, and to offer our parents a home to live in, none of which would have been possible if we were still heavily in debt and not focused on our financial freedom.

But I often have to remind myself, as well as my students, that we cannot put on someone else’s oxygen mask without putting ours on first. So give yourself some grace if you’re on your own financial journey and can’t afford to help as much as you would like right now. For me, that meant pursuing debt freedom, and subsequently reaching my first FIRE goals faster than most people expected, so that I would have the time and resources now to help in ways that feel meaningful to me.  Stay tuned for the next installment of Mess To Million where I share 3 pieces of advice that I went against to build a six-figure business from scratch during the pandemic.

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