5 Reasons My Parents Escaped the Lower Class (and No, it’s NOT Hard Work)

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It’s ingrained in the national psyche that all you need to achieve the American Dream is to “work hard.” But there are far more people willing to work hard than people acknowledge. There are plenty of day laborers and people toiling away at minimum- or low-wage jobs who will never get ahead. Hard workers are not hard to come by, but hard work is not enough and has never been enough. Truth is, America has never cared that much about hard work. Why do we keep perpetuating this myth?

Why We Don’t Care About Hard Work

America is a nation that loves effortlessness, or at least its appearance. Do you know how many hipsters we have? Haven’t we popularized athleisure? Didn’t we give the world the Kardashians? These icons of our culture (they’re iconic in that they’re well-known) do not signify hard work. In fact, we detest people who look like they’re trying too hard. America prefers overnight effortless successes. America loves the idea of being thin without starving or craving. America hates the idea that it takes a lot of work to be at the top of one’s game.

So if hard work doesn’t get us ahead, what does? In Great at Work, Morten Hansen tells an anecdote about when he noticed that, though he killed himself working grueling hours, he still wasn’t getting the results of his colleague who worked far fewer hours. She was far less stressed and got better results. Do you think their employer thought he was better for working hard? Nope!

No one prefers the guy who works hard over the girl who works efficiently and gives better results. You may say, she worked hard to be so efficient- but the author admits that he has always put 100% effort into everything he does. He has always worked hard, but hasn’t really worked smart.

The point of the book is that you have to focus your hard work on the important, specific small things in order to succeed. Too often, people focus on tons of unnecessary things (like hard work). They work hard, but they never get ahead.

How My Parents Got Ahead

My parents came to this country with very little and are very comfortable now. My parents didn’t work that hard. And by that, I mean to say, they weren’t toiling in the fields, doing back-breaking labor. They weren’t working crazy hours hustling. They worked hard on a few finite items that I believe led to their ultimate success.

1. My Parents Made Safe Bets.

According to Thinking in Bets, we can’t know for sure what the best decisions are because we have imperfect and incomplete information. The best we can do in life is to make decisions that have a high probability of success.

My dad became an accountant and my mother studied math. These were and still are in-demand fields of study. I don’t know too many hardworking unemployed accountants or mathematicians (some but not a lot).

My dad told me that he used to do accounting for starving artists. They would sell their guitar in order to make rent and when they came into money, they would buy it back. He warned me about this. I mean, I’m certainly not so artistic that I would have pursued a career in the arts. But Asian Americans always want their kids to be able to support themselves. There’s always a push towards “safe jobs.” They want their kids to struggle less than they did. They do this by ensuring that their kids know a trade that is marketable.

In addition to learning a pliable trade, my parents learned other useful skills – like English.

Once, I met this woman in China who told me that she traveled there for months at a time every year for 10 years. Then she turns around to the DVD vendor and says in loud English “FIVE!” and spreads her hand open to indicate the same. This woman, who had spent months and months living in China, didn’t even know the Chinese word for “five.”

Meanwhile, when I was cleaning out my parents’ basement, I stumbled upon my dad’s old English textbook. It’s pretty cute. In the margins, he writes (in his beautiful handwriting) “Study!”

English is my parents’ third and fourth language. My parents made a concerted effort to learn English, which is the main reason my siblings’ and my Chinese is mediocre. They were constantly practicing and, though their grammar isn’t perfect, their English is far better than the vast majority of immigrants their age. I even remember my dad’s first pun (“I find hostels to be quite hostile.”).
I know people will say people don’t need to learn English. I mean, you don’t. But it’s going to be difficult for you in America, just like not knowing Chinese in China is difficult. Granted, if you’re reading this in an English-speaking country, you probably already know the language. But there are other skills you can learn that will be helpful and make you more marketable in your career. If you don’t have a marketable skill (like accounting) and you don’t know the language, employers are more likely to take advantage of you and you won’t know how to get a better job. You don’t necessarily have to use your survival skills, but you’ll be glad to have them if you’re in a pinch.

2.  My parents lived within their means.

Well, obviously my parents had to be thrifty. They’re immigrants. My parents drove their cars to the ground and kept the same furniture for decades. We rarely got gifts (you have everything you need! my mom said) and we drove all up and down the east coast for vacations. Not spending all their money helped them to build wealth.

When I’ve talked about “safe bets” above, there’s no such thing as complete safety. Part of making the “safe” bet on engineering, is giving yourself room in case your plan fails. A lot of people get in trouble by making big bets that they didn’t think were risky. Like spending $200,000 on a college education. Buying a $1M house. People think, oh education and housing are solid investments. But even with high-paying jobs, these are risky bets. You could still end up hating your engineering job, and then having to work at it for years to pay for your outlandish college bill.

My parents went to state schools and my siblings and I also went to state schools. Living within our means for education and housing expenses has given us more flexibility in pursuing our careers.

3.  My parents were entitled.

I don’t mean this to mean that my parents thought things would be handed to them, but that they understood their own value and demanded nothing less. They hustled. And in my mind, they had a certain middle-class mindset.

My circle of friends includes a few people who grew up in the lower class. These people are generally better at everything than I was/am – there’s a reason they were able to climb social ranks after all. They’re super smart, with amazing willpower, talented, charismatic, good-looking. They basically rose through the ranks based on merit and not tricks. So I’ve noticed that there’s still some tell-tale signs that they didn’t grow up middle-class.

For my ex, B, he always assumed that you get what you are offered. You can’t ask for help or if you do, people won’t give it to you. (Studies show that people who grow up in lower income areas trust people less than people who grew up in more affluent ones).  He had seen his mom make do with a lemon of a car, because that’s the only kind of car they would offer to someone with bad credit. They lived in whatever apartment that could fit their rent. Because this is what he saw, he learned to take what he was given and he didn’t ask for more.

My parents, on the other hand, would never settle for less. They taught me to call up the bank to get my fees waived. They always checked for and contested incorrect charges. They haggled. I remember a childhood of scolding them for being too aggressive. (“Guys, this isn’t China. Stop yelling.”) I’m a little more genteel than my parents, but the entitlement is straight up from watching their example.

I remember I was traveling with B, and we were running very late at LAX. The check-in kiosk wasn’t working so we were waiting in a very long line to see an agent to get our boarding passes. The minutes were ticking by, and B had resigned himself to missing the flight. But not me.

A new attendant appeared behind the customer service desk, but she was clearly working on something besides assisting customers. I bypassed the line under the velvet ropes and presented my tickets to her, saying we couldn’t check in at the kiosks. She quickly resolved the issue and we ran up the escalators to the long security line. I heard our names called on the intercom for last boarding call. I then asked every single person in front of me if they would let us cut in line or we would miss our flight. They all said yes. Then we ran through the terminal and caught our flight just before it left (gate attendants love telling you how close you are to missing a flight). Following my example, on our flight, B asked the man sitting next to him if he would switch seats with me so we could sit together. He never would have thought to do that before. For B, he would have just sucked the missed flight or the mismatched seats as fate and paid for another ticket, and whatever other costs were associated with that, and sat separately. I assume people are willing to help, and that’s something I learned from my parents.
I think how I act is very normal for a middle-class person. Lower-class people never expect anything good and upper-class people may have never felt the need to haggle. But the middle-class, we are all about that hustle. Hustling saves money but it also gives you a certain bit of confidence. I don’t believe in “The Secret” but I do believe that optimism can lead to good results. If you believe something good might happen, you’re more likely to try new things, which is more likely to get you somewhere good than sitting on your butt. That optimism is very middle-class, very American.

4. My parents chased the jobs.

My parents were unafraid of switching jobs when it suited their needs. My mother actually moved to Virginia by herself when I was 9 to follow a new job. She rented a room and visited us on the weekends, while my dad took care of us in New Jersey. (It was around this time that I learned my dad was actually a very good cook; he just didn’t care enough about cooking to make anything besides spaghetti for us. But one time he whips out a shrimp with lobster sauce and I thought, who are you?? Why have you been feeding us vienna sausages all these years!).

My parents uprooted their kids from New Jersey to Virginia because of their jobs. Now I know some parents would judge them harshly for this.  They should have thought of their children! For me, I think it was rough changing schools but it was ultimately one of the best things that happened to me. The kids from my small hometown in New Jersey would hang out at the local grocery store parking lot for fun. Virginia, on the other hand, has some of the best public schools in the country.  Instead of parking lot friends, my peers are teachers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Further, the DC metro area is prosperous and well-educated and my entire family lives in the area to this day. I think it would be pretty unlikely that we would all  be within a half hour drive of each other in our little town in New Jersey. I’m just going to say here that sometimes you have to move to get a better job and kids are pretty resilient.

5. My parents were equals.

I note something else significant about our move to Virginia: I don’t know too many couples where a man has followed a woman for HER job. I don’t know too many couples where a man takes care of three kids and the house by himself while his wife is away without complaining. I don’t know too many couples where the wife will move away from her kids to pursue her career. (And by the way, my dad has always made slightly more than my mother, so it wasn’t an obvious economic choice).

Personally, I think this was pretty badass all around. When I look at my parents’ careers, my dad always took the route that would make it easier for my mom to stay at her job. We moved houses so she could be closer to work, even though it made his commute longer. My parents were long-distance for a year and we ultimately moved to Virginia because of my mom’s job. My dad has never ever mentioned this; it’s just something I’ve noted from looking back. I don’t think he thinks it’s notable.

It occurred to me later in life that a lot of men will block their wives from advancing in their careers and, those who don’t actively impede are still unlikely to do much to support their wives, particularly when such support is to their own detriment, and if the wife is not earning as much.

I realize it sounds like a small thing – my dad was not a complete obstacle to my mother’s career. But I have seen the reverse pretty frequently, even in subtle ways. My very favorite political story, and this is a category without a lot of contenders, is a weird and controversial one. It’s Ted Cruz buying 100 cans of soup. It didn’t resonate with most people because they don’t live in the same bubble as I do. I know so many hetero couples where, even though the woman is poised for an excellent career, the man still expects her to have domestic duties. This story was that rare opposite – it was Cruz making a gesture that he expected his wife to pursue her own career and that he was perfectly happy to take care of himself. (Also, I’m impressed with how spare his life is. PF blogger in the making right there!).

My mom is an all-around superhuman. I mean, she moved out by herself for a new job in her 40s and commuted between Virginia and New Jersey for a year. Before and after that, she worked full-time and cooked us dinner every night, which we ate sometimes as late as 9pm. But my dad played a significant role in helping my mom’s career, something I think is notable and rare. Having two income earners really helped their financial stability.

Closing thoughts.

My parents’ route is not the only way to success. Obviously a lot of immigrants start businesses. They take riskier routes. This is just my parents’ story. Of course there’s a fair amount of luck involved. My parents are still married. None of their kids had health problems. They didn’t get sick. They weren’t unemployed for long stints.

But the point I’m trying to make is, it’s not all about hard work. I mean, my parents worked, but they focused on the right skills, rather than focusing on working round the clock. People in America don’t really get ahead by working hard at their jobs (but they do need to work at least hard enough not to get fired before finding a new job). Do I feel bad that other people work harder than me and get paid less? No, it makes me feel good because it means none of us have to kill ourselves to get ahead. You need results, not exhaustion.

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The Joys of Makeup and Other Uplifting Stories

woman with orange manicure

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I say I don’t read the news, but that’s actually not true. My homepage is an RSS feed on Yahoo! and I pay for subscriptions to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. When I say, I don’t read the news, I mean: I don’t follow what’s going on with Trump, I don’t watch TV news, and I try to read GOOD and inspiring news stories. The media generally does a good job of distorting our realities by showcasing the worst of humanity, but I like to distort my own reality by zeroing in on the best. So every now and again, I’d like to share some of the best stories I’ve seen on the web. The theme of this roundup is: makeup!

The Joys of Makeup

It seems like personal finance gospel that makeup is a waste of money and possibly anti-woman. Generally, I think the point of personal finance is never to denigrate another person’s choices so long as others aren’t hurt, the choices are conscious and the choices don’t interfere with ultimate money goals.

I unabashedly love makeup. It’s well-known that color can change your mood. An easy way to cheer up is to see red, like the red in a lipstick. As an artistic person, I’ve always been interested in paint, and makeup is an extension of that. It’s about drawing the light to certain areas and creating shadows elsewhere. Its contemplating symmetry, the Golden ratio and our preconceived notion beauty. It’s about optimism: a belief in change and the ability to change how others perceive us, becoming a new person with a swipe of color. And most of all, it’s just fun.

Wear makeup- don’t wear makeup. I don’t care. But I’m a champion of makeup and I’d like to highlight some stories of makeup changing the world for the better:

The first story comes from Rob Bell’s, book Sex God (it’s about the connection between sexuality and spirituality so it’s ironically, the least raunchy book you’re apt to read this year). I know I said this was about makeup but the first part is very sad, so power through and keep reading. [WARNING: the following is a graphic description of a Holocaust concentration camp]:

In 1945, a group of British soldiers liberated a German concentration camp called Bergen-Belsen. One of them, Lieutenant Colonel Mercin Willet Gonin, DSO wrote in his diary about what they encountered:

I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives. It was just a barren wilderness, as bare as a chicken run. Corpses lay everywhere, some in huge piles, sometimes they lay singly or in pairs where they had fallen. It took a little time to get used to seeing men, women and children collapse as you walked by them . . .

One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect. It was, however, not easy to watch a child choking to death from diphtheria when you knew a tracheotomy and nursing would save it. One saw women drowning in their own vomit because they were too weak to turn over, men eating worms as they clutched a half loaf of bread purely because they had to eat worms to live and now could scarcely tell the difference.

Piles of corpses, naked and obscene, with a woman too weak to stand propping herself against them as she cooked the food we had given her over an open fire; men and women crouching down just anywhere in the open relieving themselves. .. [a] dysentery tank in which the remains of a child floated.

Bell uses this description to show the inhumane conditions that were thrust upon the concentration camp victims. This was after the Nazis had left after all, so they weren’t still terrorizing these people. Yet the conditions remained un-human. It wasn’t that the actions the people performed themselves were un-human. There was nothing wrong with relieving yourself anywhere, eating worms, or piling up corpses – because those were necessities of their circumstances.

If you were going to pinpoint the exact part that was un-human, it was the lack of care. They couldn’t care about anything because they were so starved – not just of food, but of respect, esteem and individuality. People will cry “don’t care what other people think” but humans are social animals. And when you really stop caring what anyone else thinks of you, perhaps because people treated you like you were nothing to care about, you lose yourself.

It’s like Karamo Brown says on Queer Eye: “You try to act like you don’t care about how your house looks, how you look or the fact that people are no longer in your life. And I’m not buying it.” It’s human to care. When we don’t care about what others think, about how we are perceived, about taking care of ourselves, something wrong has happened.

Later in the diary, another anecdote:

It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick.

I wish so much that I could discover who did it. It was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance.

I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the postmortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At least someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

Funny how lipstick saves the day, eh?
Here’s another story about the power of lipstick. And one about nail polish. How Rihanna is harnessing her beauty company for good.

Other Positive Stories from the Week

The Orioles are Wearing Braille Jerseys

Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick celebrate 30 years of marriage and don’t give a single piece of advice on how to stay married.

A wife writes about one small thing her husband does that makes her feel loved. What’s more beautiful than his act, is that she notices and appreciates it.

Our dose of hilarious Buzzfeed.

Cool diaries.

Good habits to try:

How to Break Up with Your Phone in 7 Days. (I am trying this. It’s been such a wonderful calm added to my life to leave my phone at home!)

Sober September. I don’t know why “quit drinking” isn’t at the top of more frugal tips. Alcohol is not good for you and it’s quite expensive. After dating an alcoholic, I’m much more aware of how difficult it can be to stay sober in a Happy Hour-friendly town. So on top of all the above positives, you’re creating a better environment for people who can’t or shouldn’t drink.

What good stories have you read this week?

 

How This Woman Saves 98% of Her Income and Plans to Retire at 32

expat dating on the path to fire

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I talked with Stephanie, an expat living in Brazil, about dating while pursuing financial independence. This interview is part of a series about dating and money. Read the previous installment here. [This conversation has been edited for clarity.]

1. Tell us where you learned about money.

I learned from my parents more what not to do with money than what to do with money.  My mom was an accountant but had her own business. My dad also owned his own business and I saw a lot of the struggles there.  There’s so much variability in entrepreneurship. If your company doesn’t do well, it can be a strain, not having steady projects. It’s influenced me not to be an entrepreneur.

I was 1 of 4 children. My sister had a project, how much can a family live off of per meal. My family came up with $1 per person per meal. She went to a private school and her teacher said that’s not possible. And we said, yeah we’ve been doing that all the time. Because I couldn’t ask my mom and dad for money, I learned that I didn’t truly need extra things.

2. Tell us about becoming an expat and your FI journey.  

I’ve always wanted to live overseas. I studied abroad in college in Sweden but it was only for 4 months so it didn’t satisfy my wanderlust. I did a 2-year rotational program with my company. At the end of it, I ended up finding a department in my company hiring quality engineers to live and work abroad.

I had an offer to move to Siberia Russia to do almost the exact same job that I currently do. Even though I want to work overseas, the location wasn’t going to work for me. But the offer of Brazil came in after someone else backed out. My initial contract was 2 years. I got it extended for 3 years.

Someone had already given me the idea of “live like you’re still in college and save the rest.” Even after I graduated from college, I only lived on 50% of my income. And then I was a little lost; my next financial milestone was retirement when I was 65.

My roommate told me about Mr. Money Moustache and I read the entire blog. Financial independence means I’ll have enough life savings that I don’t have to work if I don’t have to. I plan to be financially independent when I’m 32.

Being an expat for my company means, I get my normal salary plus several perks like my car and rent paid for. Being in Brazil means I get one meal daily paid for. My biggest expenses are travel, groceries, gas, and shopping. Being an expat allows me to save a lot of money.

3.  Do you have any tips on saving money?

I save somewhere around like 98% of my income. Even before I moved to Brazil I saved 50% of my income.

But it can be difficult to save. There’s still temptation: “Oh I’m making more money. I can go on extravagant trips.” And I won’t tell you I don’t go on extravagant trips. But I know which things don’t matter to me. It’s not like I have X budget to go on a trip but instead I think, how can I do this in a cheap but comfortable way? Let me look for a hotel that looks nice but is of good value. This is what sounds like the coolest experience and here is how I can still save money in the process.

At some point, I would like to motivate people not to bite off more than they can chew at a younger age. I’ve heard horror stories of people getting out of college with $100,000 of debt. It’s important to make smart decisions early since it will impact your future self. Student loan payments can translate to $500/month, which is the same as I was paying for rent after college. That’s like paying double rent for 30 years.

The difference between what my sister makes having gone to an Ivy League college and what I make [going in-state] can be offset with good internships and negotiating your salary.

4. What was the most surprising thing you learned about living as an expat?

The biggest frustration is the feeling that everything you think is normal is not normal and could totally be something different. The first time I drove into São Paulo for the weekend I went to an area of town that seemed a bit rundown by my standards and to park my car, without being able to communicate in Portuguese, I gave someone my cars, they handed me a little slip of paper and I just had to hope that my car would be there when I came back. For the first several months everything you do kind of feels wrong and still after two years I still have situations that feel wrong.

The other thing is, as you start to learn other languages, it’s a learning process and funny when you translate things back into your native language for example I went to the dentist and said Dentista! and walked upstairs. But in America, you wouldn’t walk in and say Dentist! and then just walk to where you needed to go.

5. What was your worst FI dating experience?

I went to an all-you-can-eat soup and pizza place. I picked up the pizza with my hands and people in Brazil don’t touch their food with their hands the look on his face was priceless. I also tried to pay for myself on that one too.

6. Who picks up the check?

Sometimes when I get into situations where I know that I don’t like them, I’m going to offer to pay and do things to show that you’re not interested.

Brazil is a masculine society and it would be expected for a man to pay the bill however I tend to make significantly more than my dates, so I still offer to split the bill.

My ex-boyfriend was on the same financial independence path that I was on. But where I’m at right now I want him to be financially independent. I would love to find someone with the mindset but I’m not holding out for that because I don’t think that’s a possibility here [in Brazil].

7. Best piece of advice for dating and money

You need to give people a chance. Even if they don’t click all of your boxes at the beginning is not a reason to dismiss them. Finding people who have lived abroad gives them something more in common with me. And they’ll hopefully start to understand that people are different. Otherwise it’ll be hard for them to understand about my daily challenges and experiences about living in a foreign culture.

I’m looking for someone that wants a relationship. That doesn’t seem so common. Perhaps because I’m looking on Tinder.

A lot of people have said that financial independence is not achievable on 20-30k. But I’ve always had the mentality that if I’m 32, I will still do something else with my time since I’m not going to sit on a beach for the rest of my life.

Also what’s the harm of me being financially independent? I’ve run into some people who have a very skeptical opinion or disbelief of being able to accomplish financial independence so young. But I try to let go of the negative thoughts and do what’s best for me.

One of the other struggles I’ve really gone through with planning to be financially independent at 32: I have no real constraints with location or money. I don’t have a family or kids. I don’t have anything that’s pulling me into one of the things. It’s leaving me in the middle of figuring what I want to do. I know I’m going to want to do something else with my life. I have a life coach to figure out what I want to do after financial independence.

I’m definitely planning to take some time off and travel but the big unknown is what happens after that.  It’s a little exciting when you take out the constraints, but also a challenge. It leaves me able to think about the bigger view of the world and try to do something that leaves the world in a better place than I started.