Four Money Basics My Mother Couldn’t Teach Me – Because She Didn’t Know Them Herself

When I have questions about money, I just Google the answer. My Mint app tracks my budget, Digit stashes money away for me automatically, Wealthfront invests some money for me here and there, and I can check websites like The Simple Dollar to figure out what an IRA is and how I’m supposed to get one started.

My mother, meanwhile, had no such guidance when it came to money. She was about my age now when our family immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union. Although it was only a 10-hour plane ride to JFK in New York, when we landed, my mother said it felt like a different universe.

She suddenly found herself in one of the biggest, brightest cities in the world, with limited English, a hysterical child to consider (that would be me), and a new life to navigate.

For the first few years while we were figuring things out, my family shared a studio apartment. I sat outside my mother’s English classes because we couldn’t afford childcare – I had only ever heard of “babysitters” on TV. Despite having a college degree, my mother picked up shifts cleaning houses so we could make ends meet. Forget Google or budgeting apps; she’d never even seen a credit card in real life.

Stories like this one are pretty common — immigrants make up nearly 14% of the U.S. population — that’s 42 million people who are likely unfamiliar with the nuances of American personal finance.

And the largest cohort of immigrants are millennials, a group that’s dealing with their own financial issues. Carrying an average student loan debt of $17,000 and earning 20% less than previous generations did in young adulthood, many millennials are struggling to navigate the realm of money management regardless of whether they were born here.

Moreover, only five states in the U.S. require high school students to take a personal finance course, making it all but certain that financial basics remain completely foreign to those of us who may not come from money-savvy homes, even in the technological age.

I recently had a long conversation with my mother about the lessons she had to learn — often the hard way — when it came to her finances. So many of the things she struggled with were the same ones I still experience confusion over myself. What surprised me, however, was that many of my friends and peers of different backgrounds are also finding difficulty understanding these four basic money matters:

How to Pay for College

My mother told me her biggest money regret was not saving adequately for me to go to college. Having come from a communist country that didn’t charge for education, she was completely overwhelmed by the loans, percentages, and repayment terms associated with higher education in the U.S.

She had never even heard of CDs or high-yield savings accounts, much less 529 plans. As a result, my first time hearing about all of this was after college, when I started interning at The Simple Dollar. I felt so overwhelmed by the number of entirely foreign concepts and terms that I spent my first weekend reading dozens of articles and trying to make sense of them. When applying to graduate schools, the mere thought of paying for the programs made my head spin.

Even now, as a completely fluent English speaker with more experience in finance, I still wasn’t sure how to properly fill out a FAFSA. Turns out, I wasn’t alone — 18.9% of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who didn’t submit the FAFSA say it was because the forms were too much work. That’s one in five people who may not receive the financial aid they’re qualified for simply due to the complexity of the process.

Credit Cards

When it came to credit cards, my family didn’t understand how, or why, they would be allowed to spend money they didn’t have.

My mother thought her credit card limit was supposed to be the money she had in her bank account, and was worried that the credit card companies had made a mistake. My grandmother kept asking, “But why did they give me money? That’s not my money.”

To this day, my grandparents cannot bring themselves to use credit cards without being afraid that they’re doing something wrong and will have to pay more later. Needless to say, this lack of understanding with our credit system can create tremendous problems.

While we were fortunate enough to exercise extreme caution, it very well could have gone the other way. A whopping 38.1% of U.S. households reported having credit card debt in 2015, and although credit scores are available with most major card providers, the terminology is often technical and confusing.

I have had countless conversations with friends who have zero clue about how to open a credit card account or make their spending work for them. Most of my friends rely on their checking accounts exclusively, or opt for a card with the lowest interest rate, thinking that things like points and rewards are a scam. They aren’t, of course, and with the right amount of planning and discipline, credit cards can be a very helpful tool in budgeting and saving money.

Saving Money

The biggest financial culture shock my mother recalled was the way her income was appropriated. In the former USSR, ‘renting’ an apartment and paying for things like utilities was unheard of. Rather, the bulk of her paycheck would go toward food and personal items like clothing.

In the U.S., when she found herself struggling to have money left over after paying for rent (granted, we lived in New York City), she had to completely restructure her spending habits.

One thing I distinctly remember about growing up in an immigrant community was the lack of ownership. I didn’t know anyone with a house or a car they owned, and my mother to this day has never purchased property. Instead, there was a stronger focus on material status symbols – grooming, clothing, and organic food were prioritized over long-term savings.

I notice the same thing happening with my millennial peers. Rather than save for a house, which would take years and produce no immediate gratification, we choose to spend our money on Lululemon, Starbucks, and going out (guilty).


In the USSR, the elderly lived exclusively on pensions that were provided by the government. Expenses in old age, such as assisted living or costs associated with funerals, were nonexistent. As such, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I only learned what a 401(k) and IRA were recently, when I was filing taxes on my own for the first time.

I mistakenly thought retirement savings was something automatically taken out of my paycheck, and therefore didn’t realize that I needed to be actively saving for it myself. My grandparents are still living on Social Security – which, if no changes are made, could very well be depleted by the time my generation comes to depend on it in retirement.

According to a survey by the Insured Retirement Institute and the Center for Generational Kinetics, 70% of millennials projected they would spend less than $36,000 per year in retirement, a figure that’s entirely unrealistic considering the average annual spending in 2013 was $46,000. Not only that, 15% believed that winning the lottery was an adequate strategy for retirement. This ludicrous notion points to just a few of the many misconceptions young people have when it comes to their future.

Final Thoughts

Coming to America was one of the hardest things my mother ever had to do. She was young, with limited resources, and needed to navigate a completely new environment and economy.

Unfortunately, many young Americans are experiencing similar difficulties navigating our financial system, despite having been raised in the U.S. Rather than dismiss millennials for being wasteful or entitled, it’s important to help build a better understanding of basic personal finance.

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