I was born and raised in Uzbekistan. Most people I knew there were making between $50 and $200 a month. However, our standard of living was very good. I just graduated from college with Master's Degree when I met my husband who was a charming American. When we got married and moved to U.S., I discovered that my husband had some serious financial issues - he used my brand new credit history to apply for various business and personal loans, over $250,000 total, which he never repaid, was shopping every day for gadgets and frivolous things and spending lots of money without having any savings. Less than two years into my being in U.S. I had to declare bankruptcy (without even fully understanding what it was). We had a baby boy and I staid home.
Eventually, I went to law school, while also working in the restaurants, which was an ordeal since I turned out to be the clumsiest waitress in the history of the modern world. I remember carrying a tray full of crab legs, potatoes and lobsters and thinking how my 5' 100 lbs body was not properly designed for this. I also worked in the Chinese restaurant without understanding a word, and other waiters often laughed at me (whole-heartedly so), when I tried to pronounce the names of the dishes. I also worked as a telemarketer and cemetery sales person trainee (!). I was awful at both. My mother left her high-paying job and her family in Uzbekistan and moved in with us to take care of my son. She was horrified by the conditions I was living in, but I never questioned my husband (cultural thing).
My husband's philosophy was - you can never save enough money, so the best way to do it is to earn more. Needless to say, he did neither. Also, he spent everything I earned on shopping. Once he spent the money I saved from my tips for the return ticket for my 1 y.o. son who was visiting Uzbekistan with my mother. I was devastated. However, I increased my hours at the restaurant, took the shifts no one else wanted, and saved enough money for their return. Eventually I was fired because I couldn't keep up with all the tables I took out of desperation. I spent hours at night at the law school library after classes and work, studying my way to top 10% of my class. Throughout my law school I had a chipped front tooth (!) which I couldn't repair because of lack of insurance and money.
Sometimes things were so bad that we had no money on baby formula and I had to get it from the food banks. I wore used clothes which is completely against my culture. However, he insisted on living in "prestigious" neighborhoods and driving expensive cars. All of our money went to rent and car payments. He also insisted that since babies don't understand anything, it's ok to buy all the used stuff for them. My son had used everything - carriage, clothes, blankets. I am still upset over this.
Once I graduated from law school and passed the bar I became an attorney. I became more assertive about the finances and insisted we moved to a tiny apartment downtown Woodbury, NJ where I worked as a judicial clerk. Initially he complained that he doesn't want to live "like an immigrant" and that he needs more privacy. However, I insisted on that. I was walking to work and keeping the budget for groceries and everything else. I still did not know anything about finances and could barely use an ATM. After finishing my clerkship, I remember receiving a statement about having $1000 in my 401K. I showed it to my husband asking what should we do with it? He said: cash it. So I did.
Why did I not leave my husband? Because of the Uzbek (read Eastern) culture. The more American I became, the more it was obvious that I should leave him. While I was working long hours as a litigation attorney, he staid home after another failed "business" and called me at work 10 times a day asking why we did not have money in our bank account. I had to log into the online bank account and explain him all the charges that he caused by shopping at the Comp USA, Home Depot, thrift shops, Costco, Wal-Mart, etc. One year ago I left him. The decision was accelerated by my father moving to U.S. and instantly being appalled with my husband's behavior.
I started studying the personal finances, mostly on the web and at Barnes & Nobles. I maxed out my 401K (PRNEX, TRSGX, RPMGX) and IRA (VEIEX & VTSGX), invest in DRIPs (MO, PG, INTC, BAC, KFT, XOM), and saved nearly $60,000. I plan on saving $2,000,000 in 15 years. Of course, I make a lot more money than I ever imagined and more money a year than my friends in Uzbekistan will make in their entire life (result of long hours, hard work and multiple salary negotiations sessions). However, I live in a small apartment with cheap rent which belongs to the City, drive a 10 year old car, not interested in shopping, send my son to a public school (despite a huge pressure from my colleagues and friends to send him to private school), automatically deduct the investments before other expenses, and if anything is left over at the end of the month, I invest it, too.
My only indulgences are travel and various activities and toys for my son. I also spend money on health and dental insurance for my family, life and disability insurance, car insurance, and 529 for my son. I don't want my family to ever go through the bottom the way I did. We now have a security of our investments and emergency fund. Unlike most of my friends, I resist the urge to buy real estate (which is overpriced here) or lease a luxury car. However, I feel happy and secure. The only legacy left from my ex is: me occasionally shopping for clothes in second-hand stores (I'm sure i saved thousands of dollars that way, but I am considered stylish and polished by everyone
) and my ruined credit which forces me to pay cash for everything (which is actually good). I am also dating a great guy (and teaching him about finances
I never told my story to anyone, even my closest friends. My childhood friends would never believe it, since I grew up in a wealthy and educated family. However, the way I always say it to my mom: the first generation of immigrants always have it rough, but on their shoulders the next generations prosper. I certainly hope this will be true for my son.