Like the majority of folks of color, I was raised on money stories of scarcity. Add that to the fact that my parents were immigrants, fleeing a country under martial law, and had nothing when they first got here. Super scarcity! (Not a superpower you want! Haha)
The other day, my dad shared a story with my kids about how my parents ate fried chicken every night for dinner when they first arrived in the US. Why? Because they didn’t have a car and had to rely on their Filipino co-workers for a ride to work at the hospital and a ride home.
“There was a lot of waiting,” my dad said.
They didn’t want to impose any more than they needed to. And the fried chicken spot was in a strip mall adjacent to the apartment complex they lived in. So, they walked there to get dinner. They walked there when it was still a novelty. They walked there during their first experience of snow in those Ohio winters. They walked and ate fried chicken. They ate and walked back. This went on for months.
“It was a very long time after that before we could eat fried chicken again,” my dad said.
After seven years of hard work-with my mom working 12-hour nursing shifts while my dad completed his residency- my parents were doing financially better. My dad just opened his private practice in NJ and they were starting to establish themselves. When I was six, we moved into our first house. You’d think that was it-happy ending! American Dream achieved!
But not without hustle. Not without struggle. Not without mental strain.
My parents operated from a scarcity mindset-something they inherited from their parents and likely going farther back than that. They held on tight to money as if it would disappear forever when they opened their hands. As if there wasn’t more where that came from.
My lola, who lived with us while my parents worked, would cut coupons. She and I would scour the Sunday PathMark fliers for the week’s sales. We’d check Kmart’s sales, too. We’d buy no-name labels and brands.
“Never pay full price” was my mom’s motto. Still is. And because of her, I can calculate sales prices in my head in no time! Thanks for the mental math skills, Mom! Haha!
But at what cost?
My lola, my paternal grandmother, was an economics professor back in Manila. (At least that’s what I was told. I never asked her myself.) Which is interesting to me. Perhaps had I known this when I was a kid, I’d have asked her about money and what she could teach me.
But her behaviors showed me that she, too, was living with scarcity mindset. In addition to clipping coupons, she would leave the price tags on gifts she gave to us, as if to say, See how much I spent on you? That is how much I love you. But knowing that she was as thrifty as the rest of my family, I knew she didn’t pay full price, so was her love for us discounted as well?
Undoubtedly, her relationship with money was created by her parents’ stories and how they behaved with money.
Oh, how deep and far back our money wounds go.
Growing up, I was told No for anything I asked for. That probably makes me sound like a spoiled brat, but they were simple requests. Kellogg’s Rice Krispies instead of the No Frills Crisped Rice. A melamine yellow and white mug hanging near the granola bars. Burger King because they had a toy for my favorite tv show. You know, typical little kid requests.
The No felt like scarcity. A closed door. It wasn’t necessarily a denial of me (though sometimes it was), but more of a “No, we can’t afford that.”
So, in my mind, it felt like we were poor (though, as a kid, what did I know about actual poverty? We had food on the table. So, we were not poor in the bank account. We were poor in mindset. This was my 6-year-old mind’s perception.) I felt constricted. I was told that I need to be grateful for what we did have. (“Think of all the starving children in Africa!” …why was it always Africa? Or China?)
As a result, I needed to measure out my requests carefully. Did I really need that thing? There’s Thing B that I also need. Which one do I need more? Which one do I want? Can I ask for both? Maybe if I time my requests far apart they’ll be more likely to say yes to both. Maybe?
An elementary school kid shouldn’t have to do these mental gymnastics. And yet, so many immigrant kids do.
Little did I know that my parents actually had more money than I perceived and felt. Of course, I don’t know what they did with their money. I think they invested a lot of it in things like stocks and real estate. But the feeling was one of scarcity.
But, truth be told, as I got older, I got mixed messages.
In high school, I went to an all-girls Catholic school and many of the girls there were pretty well off. Many of them had Gucci purses that they would carry around along with their backpacks. I wasn’t exactly sure what they carried in there that they couldn’t put in their backpacks. I just knew that I wanted one too because I wanted to fit in so badly. (Do I need to mention that the girls who had these purses were white? I didn’t think so.)
Reluctantly, I asked my mom if I could get one too. She said yes without batting an eye. I was shocked but did my best to hide this because I didn’t want her to second-guess the decision. So, we went to Macy’s and picked out a purse like we were picking out socks at Caldor. My mom pulled out a couple of crisp $100 bills and paid. I think my eyes popped out of my head. I don’t know if I ever saw a $100 bill before.
As I think back on it now, I suspect that she too wanted to fit in. And since I was an extension of her, a reflection of who she is and what she stands for, then it would be in her best interest to get me the purse. And it didn’t stop there with one. I think I got one every new school year until I graduated.
This was very confusing.
Were we poor when I was in elementary school? And then we became rich when I got to high school?
My parents don’t talk about money. It’s taboo. Which is not unusual for many people.
I remember completing the financial aid form for college and there’s one line that asks for your parents’ annual income. My mom didn’t want to tell me. I remember her saying, “Why do they need to know that?” She was defensive and secretive. She instructed me to fill out the rest of the form and she would put in that number at the end before sending it out.
I never knew how much income my parents brought in.
I also barely knew what to do with my own money and how to manage it.
Most of my personal finance education was from personal trial and error. From my natural tendency to be curious-always the learner, always the student. I’m still learning.
And my money stories came from my parents. “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” “You have to work hard to earn a good living.” “You have to work harder than everybody else to prove that you deserve it [because you’re Asian].”
It wasn’t until I started doing the healing work for my trauma from rape that I saw the money scarcity stories. It’s all tied together. All of it. All of the trauma. Racial trauma, childhood trauma. It’s all wrapped up in our ideas of self-worth, our sense of deserved-ness.
Our relationship with money is about our relationship with ourselves. What meaning do we assign money? Is it a measure of our worth? How much money are we worthy of? What do we feel we deserve? Do we feel shame when we have “too much” money? (What does that even mean anyway? Who decides what’s “too much”?) Where does this shame come from? Why are we okay with having “just enough to get by”?
These are questions to consider when looking at your money stories. Can you heal from this scarcity thinking so that you can truly thrive? What else might be healed if you heal this area of your life? What domino effect might begin?
This is part of the Maverick Monday series, where I talk about healing trauma (micro and macro) through the lens of a woman writer of color (that’s me!). Each week, I’ll share a personal story from my healing journey in the hopes that others will find comfort in knowing that they are not alone. I hope that by doing this, you can see that YES! healing-true, lasting, deep healing — — IS possible and that you can thrive in your life, living as your most authentic self without shrinking from the world. And I can help YOU get there! From my membership community to Heal to Power, a healing program for WOCs, to one-on-one coaching, you’ll find what’s right for you! https://suryagian.com/