Updated on 10.08.14

Overcoming A Financially Disastrous Background

Trent Hamm

Another financial story that really intrigued me recently was this one, from a person who wishes to remain anonymous (so we’ll call him/her Anonymous):

My parents are immigrants/refugees from Vietnam. When they arrived here in Australia, they both took jobs and lived an extremely frugal lifestyle, sending all savings to my mother’s side of the family, who still remained in Vietnam. Before butchers realised that some people actually eat stuff other people may discard, they sold these “scraps” for an extremely low cost. So, they lived on broths and stews made from stuff like chicken feet. (I would say instant ramen was more expensive at the time.)

This was in the 1980’s. My sister was born in the early 80’s, my brother, late 80’s.

In 1990, I was born, and my mother’s side of the family immigrated to here shortly before my birth. Upon my brother’s birth and mine, my mother left work to take care of us.

Throughout my younger life, this is pretty much all the detail I knew about my family’s time before my birth, chicken feet and all.

Before my enlightenment on finance, I didn’t think about it much, but for most of my life you could say that I was spoilt. It was done for my benefit, so I could get a good education. Both of my parents didn’t get very far in school.

We still only have one source of income, and that’s my father. My sister moved out, and my brother and I do not have jobs, as well as my mother.

We always had and we still get a fair amount of stuff. Several computers, game consoles, many games and DVDs, 5 or 6 TVs, 3 surround sound systems and several DVD players, double beds.. it just goes on. and it’s been going for probably over 12 years. All on credit cards. We took out another home loan to paint the house. (I objected to this, due to money, and this house containing a few unique properties..).

My dad repairs extra cars on the weekend for some extra cash, which is spent on food. After living a poor childhood and super-frugal life in a new country full of opportunity, who can blame him?

My mother’s side of the family are basically idiots. After they immigrated here, they never helped us, and they still occasionally ask for money. (we always refuse.) They’re not exactly good at finance either. They took out a home loan and threw the money around. We clearly sponsored the wrong side of the family to move over.

I’m about to finish/fail Year 12, and hit with depression. I’m currently not trying to find a job, nor am I interested. I have tons of dreams I wish to fufill, but it all conflicts with the financial situation, so I sit here confused and lost, going nowhere. I’m quite sensitive to discouragement, so I have discarded a fair number of pursuits.

Next year, this should all ease up a little, when my mother takes up a job and if my sister moves back in. But where does that leave me? How do I save everyone?

You could say most of my family is stubborn, and I am as well, in some areas. I don’t want to live an empty life, and have an empty job. But there is a great amount of weight, pushing me down. I feel helpless.

I need encouragement, and people to support this weight. But being hit with depression, I don’t try very much.

So, here’s the summary. Anonymous is a high school student in a family of immigrants with very poor personal finance choices. Anonymous is trying to figure out what he/she can do to make everything better, but is still in school (and apparently having some difficulty there).

Here’s my advice to Anonymous.

First of all, if your family is not dedicated to finding a better financial track, nothing you can do will really help. They’re deep in credit card debt, buying things like surround sound systems and video games. They’ve been doing this for twelve years, which sounds like it’s become a normal part of life. Until the leaders of the household themselves make a conscious decision that something needs to change, nothing is going to change. Additional money will likely be spent on frivolous things, or spent on credit card debt to free up space for more frivolous spending.

That brings on the next point: do what you can to put yourself in a position to really help later on. This means buckling down, finishing school with the best grades you possibly can, and going to college, even if it means incurring debt. Right now is the time in your life where you are putting foundation stones in place for what you’ll accomplish in life – every minute you spend doing that is a worthwhile minute.

What about the need for encouragement and motivation? Seek to surround yourself with positive things – and eliminate the negative influences from your life. Look at your life and find the pieces that weigh you down and make you feel worse, then minimize those. Also look for things that make you feel stronger and better and maximize those. Don’t look at the immediate, either – focus on the things that, when you reflect on them later, make you feel stronger as a person.

One more tip of advice (something you’ll learn naturally as time goes on): people make mistakes and bad choices. It’s part of life. You will always do better if you look at the positives in people and let the negatives slide a bit. One of the brightest people I know has a big self-confidence problem and a pretty big spending problem – but you know what I see? A genius. I know she makes some bad moves, but I try every time I see her to help her see how brilliant she is.

Those things will lay a foundation for success. After you’ve got them down, then start worrying about the dollars. The first thing is to simply spend less than you make. Do that every time and you will succeed in the long run. Everything else financially really follows from that.

Good luck! You’re young and have the world laid out in front of you – don’t be afraid to take it.

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  1. Mitch says:

    Anonymous also needs to find a counselor, psychologist, or trained clergyperson to talk to to sort things out. S/he needs to realize that s/he can’t save everyone, and must determine what the first step is towards saving him/herself. That might be college. That might be getting out of that house (moving out or spending more time away). That might be working part-time (even at an “empty” job) to build up some finances. That should definitely include completing high school if it is still possible.

    Anonymous mentions having tons of dreams; picking one or two to work on over the next 1-3 years will help a lot. Don’t worry about picking the “right” one; pick something you can put some energy into for now. You can change your mind later after you’ve learned and grown more, and if you are intelligent and work reasonably hard it will not be the end of the world to not have picked the straightest path at 17. Don’t get overwhelmed trying to figure out your whole life right now.

  2. Sharon says:

    Here are some other things for Anon,..
    1. Parents are great examples. Sometimes they are examples of what NOT to do, but use that as an example and learn from it.
    2. Be grateful that your parents have been tranparent about their finances. You may be frustrated that they aren’t listening to your (wiser) advice, but at least you can see the errors. Some parents don’t tell their kids anything and the parents end up in a mess and the kids do as well because they haven’t seen the whole picture.
    3. You can take the education thing in stages. Get a usable one or two year degree before finishing your four year degree.
    4. Community colleges are great for cheap one or two year degrees. If your family income isn’t so great this year, your education next year could be free (thanks to the US government) at a community college. Take advantage of that.
    5. As a Christian, I believe that only Jesus’ can “save” anyone. And they still have to want to be saved. You can’t save anyone whether or not they want it. You can help and make suggestions, but they have to want to change.
    And the most difficult, but I think the key is to remember that you are not your family. You will make your own financial decisions, some of them disasters (but it sounds like you have a clear head). Take some small steps and things will get better.

    PS. For the discouragment, get a calender and keep track of what you are doing to better your situation. Get fun and silly “kid” stickers. When you do something that fulfils your goals, put stickers on the day. For you goals could be turning in all of your homework for a week or getting a good grade. Saving any allowance money you get. Making plans for a future apartment. Checking out colleges and programs, etc.

  3. Geoff says:

    His first option should be to have his depression treated and understand that he is not responsible for his entire family. Get himself set up then at a letter date come back and help (if he wishes).

    Educationally, as he is writing from Australia there are a couple of Australian based educational opportunities that wont break the bank:

    1] Become an apprentice. In Aust it’s old school apprenticeship … 4 years (school plus on the job training).

    2] Community college … 2 years (little to no costs)

    3] University … 4 years (again minimal costs unlike the USA).

    Any of these paths should lead to a good job. Items 2 & 3 can be done part-time which may help financially.

    Additionally, if at this time he does not want too further his education, his job opportunities should be good. Aust is running a growth economy with little unemployment. Many companies are looking for hard working folks.

  4. Anna says:

    My biggest piece of advice for this person is to realize that he is not his family. *He* is not in debt, his *family* is. It’s their debt, and although it would be nice to be able to help them out, it’s not his responsibility to do so.

    Don’t worry about trying to save them. Instead, take Trent’s and other posters’ advice: get an education and a job, and spend less than you earn, which will set you up for a finantially secure future. Years in the future, after you are finantially secure, you will be able to help your family monitarily and, more importantly, by setting a good finantial example.

  5. DivaJean says:

    This is so sad.

    Absolutely, he must get help for the depression first. Go to the high school guidance counselor immediately- they can refer to help.

    Once the depression gets under better control, then it will time to focus on the education stuff. Failure of grade 12 is not the end of the world. Dropping out and getting a job would be. You need to re-do the senior year and bring your grades up as high as possible. This is your main objective- accept no substitute. Once the grades go up (as they will once your focus is clearer- after depression is treated), you can begin planning on where to go from there- be it a community college, training, whatever. Your guideance counselour should be able to help you find scholarship programs and awards that might be out there- or find a book on it at the library. During my senior year, I spent my free time applying to any and all applicable scholarships. I paid for 2 out 3 years of nursing school in this manner (the 3rd year got paid from my summer jobs money saved up over the course of 3 years). You can do it– but it will take focus you might not have now because of the depression.

    Treat the depression first- then start the big work.

    And as others have posted- you have learned from your family– what not to do.

  6. Sharon says:

    Sorry about the American assumption. I understood the family was in Australia and then they immigrated again just before he/she was born. I see now that it was the mother’s family moving…

  7. First of all, we need to be sensitive about the cultural differences we may have with Anon. I was raised with a certain level of expectation that children take care of their parents, so I imagine that Anon is feeling the same way. Their debt probably does feel like his/her debt, even if not in name.

    After getting some help for depression, I would suggest looking into personal development. The Personal Development List (http://www.priscillapalmer.com/priscillapalmer/2007/08/21/personal-development-list/) is a great place to find sites that promote positive mental and physical health.

  8. Marsha says:

    I personally agree with the advice The Simple Dollar gave; however, I think there’s a cultural complication here. Quite a number of other cultures — including, I think, the Vietnamese culture — have an extremely strong value on family cohesiveness. It would be difficult or even impossible for a person from such a culture to turn his back on his parents and just look after himself.

    I would suggest he seek out a counseling center that specializes in serving immigrant populations or talk with other persons from his own culture to get more ideas.

    I used to be a social worker and I had a lot of trouble counseling clients with similar issues because I was stuck in the “look out for yourself” mindset. I think there’s a happy medium between only looking out for yourself and totally sacrificing oneself to the family, but I can’t say I personally know how to find it.

  9. Sanjay says:

    Anonymous should read “Bad Childhood, Good Life” by Dr Laura Schlesinger. It made me see exactly where I stand with my family. Very revealing and very liberating. You have to deal with it now, otherwise no matter how much you ignore it, it will catch up with you later in life – like it did with me.

  10. jake says:

    I am Vietnamese and I understand the mentality and the culture that you are coming from. My dad is a blue collar worker, and he has worked as an assembler for close to 10 years and makes less than $10 an hour. My mom works at a nail shop (no surprise there), but again it does not pay much.

    The hard thing for those not familiar with Asian culture to grasp is that it is always the whole and never the individual. Vietnamese culture follows the same line, that is you do things to benefit the community or the whole family and never the individual. There is constant pressure to help family members, like loaning them money or helping them out in some way shape or form. You’re expected to support your parents until they die. My parents do not have a retirement fund, we have always lived paycheck to paycheck. A friend of mine who is also Vietnamese put it perfectly, “I am my parents retirement plan.”

    I know exactly how you feel, because I feel the same everyday. How do I take care of my parents and other family members and not leave anyone out? The answer and someone already pointed out, is dont. What I mean is forget everyone, for now. Take care of yourself, only when you have taken care of yourself can you begin to take care of others. I know it sounds cliche but I know how hard it is for you especially in a culture that looks down on you if you turn away from family.

    One of the best things I did was when I went to college I moved out and did not live with my parents. If I had lived with them, they would have drove me nuts and I would have ended up living their dream by being an engineer/doctor/lawyer and doing something THEY want and not what I want. Moving out gave me a new perspective and a new realization that allowed me realized that I need to get myself on a solid financial path before I can do anything else. It also allowed me to better understand personal finance because I was 100% in control as I was completely on my own.

    I have just graduated, and not as an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer mind you, but as a business major which is something I like. It took me 5 hard years to graduate, they were the toughest years of my life, but I graduated. Now I plan to look forward to establishing my career and pursing what I like, and as many people have said, do what you love and the money will follow. Do not be afraid of failure, but at the same time do not accept it.

  11. Laura says:

    Please make sure you get some help and a support system for the depression. My brother has suffered from a VERY severe case of clinical depression for the past 10 years so I have seen it firsthand and I understand that it leaves you with a lack of motivation and a worry that things will never get better – but they can and they will. Also, my brother is 25 and hasn’t graduated high school yet but he’s currently enrolled in his last required course and will have his high school equivalency by the end of the semester. So please understand that it’s never too late to get your education sorted out and to open up doors for yourself even if this year is not going well for you and it seems like your future is ruined. Your future is definitely not ruined, you may just need to re-do grade 12 or pick up extra courses to bring up your grades. I hope you focus on your education AFTER you have worked on the depression and gotten that under control because it’s so hard to do well in school while you’re suffering under the burden of depression.

    I understand your desire to help our your family financially and I think it’s admirable. Just be careful about one thing – if they have demonstrated over the past 12 years that they take the money they get and spend it on gifts rather than debt repayment, then they are likely to do the same with any money you give them, even if it’s not what you intend it for. Would it help to have an honest, heart-to-heart talk with them about how worried you are about their futures? Would that help them change their habits? If you don’t think so then I would suggest just focusing on getting your own finances straight rather than theirs.

  12. Kim says:

    In my experience, real and long-lasting change has to come from within the person. External forces such as you talking with your parents about their spending habits won’t do much good. So forget about that (especially since they have been doing it for 12 years). In the end, people have to help themselves or find others who can help them achieve their objectives. When you think back in a few years time, you’ll understand that PEOPLE DON’T CHANGE UNLESS THEY WANT TO. And that, in my opinion, is the most effective source for change.

    I agree with Trent. As harsh as it might sound, you need to forget about your family problems for a moment and focus on getting your life together. That should come before everything else. Remember this: YOU CAN’T LOOK AFTER OTHERS UNLESS YOU CAN LOOK AFTER YOURSELF. Furthermore, you’ll find that other issues will become easier to tackle once you’ve laid a solid foundation for yourself. Trent has already given you some great advice on how to begin.

    I understand that all this advice might sound selfish to someone such as yourself, but SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO BE SELFISH TO MAKE PROGRESS IN LIFE. Hope this helps to point you in the right direction.

  13. viola says:

    Anon., don’t give up on your dreams. Keep in mind the attitude that while you may not know how to get there, you ARE going to get there come hell or high water.

    First help your family by focusing on yourself and making a plan that will help you get to your dreams. This includes redoing your senior year of high school & working to get the best grades you can so that you can get into a good college or program. Your future isn’t over, and you’re not the first person to have to redo a school year.

    If you have a plan, when you feel upset or your circumstances seem overwhelming, you can find comfort in knowing that you are STICKING TO THE PLAN. Every day of working towards your final goal is a day closer to achieving your dreams. And if you stick to the plan you WILL get to where you want to be eventually.

    Also be an example to your family on how to live….live frugally by asking your dad to NOT buy you unnecessary items. If he insists, ask for the money instead and put it to work in an interest bearing savings account for your future (college, car, etc). Talk to them about what you want to do with your life. You say they’re stubborn, so a way to talk to them about it without confrontation is just to tell them what YOU will be doing to reach your goals without being critical of their behaviors.

    Seriously consider what type of education is best for your dreams. Talk to a career counselor (at high school or college) to help you plan. You can get your dreams AND help your family. You won’t be able to help them much if you don’t get yourself off to a good start.

  14. !wanda says:

    I’ve had depression, and the drugs and therapy (except for cognitive behavioral therapy) were all just a salve. They weren’t fixing anything, and I knew it; the only things that helped was actually doing things that benefited my future. Find the help you need to get you back on track, and then see if the depression is still there.

    If you still want a therapist, I would second the suggestion that you find one familiar with Asian issues. My mother is Chinese, and all the therapists I’ve been to almost treated her like the enemy, simply for behavior that would be appropriate in her cultural context. This attitude was unfair to her and disastrous for me.

    It sounds like the best gift you could give to your parents right now is to do well in that education they’ve tried to give you. As for choosing a job and education, it’s better to do something than nothing. As long as you know that you may not do that “something” for the rest of your life, the worst that can happen is lost time. You’re young, so you still have a lot of time! I bet that making a decision, along with a plan to re-evaluate that decision in maybe a year’s time, will go a long way towards alleviating your anxiety and depression.

  15. I have huge debt due to a combination of careless spending and personal loss. I can only guess when I will finally be out from under however, there is one thing I know sure, transferring my balances to low APR offers was the best thing I could do for myself as now my monthly fixed expenses are much lower creating far more flexibility in my bill paying.

  16. If you are looking to invest,i mean invest well, maybe think outside the bubble ?

    Brazil is on of the Brick countries, actually second in rankings now, and the real estate, energy and foreign trade sectors are just swelling.

    Do your homework:

    I learned a whole lot from this group and managed to earn 40%-60% annually in the real estate sector which is red hot right now.
    earn 35-50% annually on real estate, 50%-150% in foreign trade and the energy sector 100% – ???? who knows depends on yourself and amounts of money invested i guess……

    Besides a great excuse to actually visit Brazil and what could be better than a business trip?

    Whoever said cant mix business and pleasure was definitely wrong.

    Good Luck !

  17. Mneiae says:

    I’m Viet too and everything that you said about our culture is true. My parents, however, do not live paycheck to paycheck. Of course they started out as penniless immigrants, but for the entirety of my life we’ve been getting by and fairly affluent by American standards. I’m a business kid too and I’ll be putting in the time. My dad is an electrical engineer who worked for Ford until the early retirement package. My sister was supposed to be the doctor of the family, but she decided to go to Singapore and work for a private equity firm after graduation. Unlike you, my parents have never expected me to be a lawyer, as it’s really not as appreciated in Viet culture as honest or contributing to society. I’m becoming one, but not because my parents have ever pressured me to be one. As this post is from 2007, I hope that you’ve gotten a job and thrived.

    It has to have been tough for Anon. One problem with Viets is that we like having flashy stuff. If you ever see an Asian (-American) decked out in 20 designers at a time, you’ll probably be looking at a Viet. We, as a culture, go overboard. Obviously that’s not financially healthy. However, Americans have to understand that credit cards have still not been widely adopted in Vietnam. Responsible credit card use is not a skill they teach. I did like the community college recommendation and I hope that Anon took everyone up on that. As a Viet kid, I started college in the fall with 58 credits and junior class standing. I haven’t the slightest idea of what Anon’s parents were like about his/her academic achievement, but I hope that his/her grades were enough to get them into college. And we do have the idea that you have to support everyone in your family, but a little distance would be healthy for Anon at this point. The problem is that you have to obey your elders, including older siblings, without question or comment, so you cannot really reprimand them or talk to them about their irresponsible financial habits because it’s insolent and/or impudent. (Those are really the best English equivalents of the Viet description. The direct translation would be badly educated.) Getting away from that for a little while is the best thing to establish financial independence.

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