How my mom inspired me during a savings slump

I've been saving up for a big purchase, so I've seriously tightened my budget. Staying within my own strict boundaries has been frustrating.

When I get frustrated, I call my mom. Recently, I vented about my finances to her.

She reminded me of her story of rising from poverty. Here we go again. She grew up poor in China; saved ten grand working part time at the grocery store. I've heard this story my whole life, though admittedly, I've never really listened.

“How'd you do it?” I asked. Something clicked, making me realize it's pretty damn impressive to save that much while earning minimum wage and raising a kid alone.

My mom is no expert. She has no advice to give that we don't already know. But her story inspired me to stick to my financial goal, and I think that counts for a lot.

“I wore the same clothes every day,” she told me, “because those were the only clothes I had.” My brother and I often spoof this story, teasing my mom for laying it on thick. But this time, I let her continue, instead of offering my usual, Yeah, yeah, I get it.

“When you were little,” she said, “most people would consider us dirt poor. But I didn't. I know what dirt poor is. I remember those times.”

I could hear her voice drifting to a difficult place. “I remember picking up a piece of candy from the ground, that's already been half-eaten, and putting it in my mouth, because I didn't have any food,” my mom told me.

I still thought she was exaggerating, but then her voice cracked. I realized what was a tall tale to me was a very real place for her. This wasn't a “back in my day” story. This was my mother's painful memory.

She recalled an exciting childhood dream she had, which starred a loaf of raisin bread. “A whole loaf!” she exclaimed. “You never got a whole loaf! They didn't even sell them by the loaf.” In her dream, the sight of that bread made her salivate. She could taste it. She opened her mouth to take a giant bite. Right as she was about to chomp down, she woke up.

“I tried to go back to sleep so I could take that bite,” my mom laughed. “I couldn't. So I was awake, but I bit into it anyway, even though there was nothing there.”

Sacrifice

Her family moved to the States. Years passed. I was born. A single mom, she found part time work at Kroger. “How much did you make?” I asked. “I don't remember what minimum wage was. I remember my paychecks being four hundred dollars. Yeah, that number sticks out to me.”

“Every two weeks?” I assumed.

“Every month,” she said, casually.

It wasn't as bad as it sounds. We shared a one-bedroom apartment with my aunt, and rent was a mere $225. “Food was so cheap back then,” she added. “And interest rates were high.”

She didn't have many expenses, and she got a better return on her savings than nowadays, but still. How does one go about saving five digits on a three-digit living?

Plain and simple sacrifice, my mom says. She cites hand-washing laundry, not turning on the TV, walking to work and winging it with childcare among some of those sacrifices. (My aunt and grandma would watch me when they could. When they couldn't, it was bring-your-daughter-to-work day.)

But it wasn't just about saving. It was about earning more, too. She took on as much overtime as possible and got a second job working at a nearby convenience store.

“What about fun money?” I asked.

“No fun!” my mom balked. “You find other ways of having fun. Go to the park and get on the swing.”

Playing devil's advocate, I asked her what kind of life this was to live — constantly sacrificing, never enjoying anything. She sighed.

Perspective

“I had a bad experience to draw from, so it wasn't a sacrifice,” she responded. “These things didn't seem like sacrifices to me. I just did what I thought I needed to do.”

My mom has her past to draw from in order to stay motivated. I, on the other hand, have been frustrated because I can't eat out as much if I want to afford some fancy video equipment. But listening to my mom choke up about her past, I was able to catch a glimpse of it and briefly put things into perspective. My definition of sacrifice is what most of the world would call lavish.

We all know this, and there's no point in dwelling on it — except that seeing our situation through someone else's eyes might help us stay motivated to reach our goals. Experiencing what she did, my mom had an advantage — she knew she could keep going. In a way, by telling me this story, she was passing the advantage on to me.

“I Stuck to It”

My mom recalls a conversation she had with my aunt, “the person you should really be talking to,” she says.

My aunt stressed the importance of saving; my mom bemoaned her earnings. “Even if I could save, the most would be, what, five bucks a week?” That was before she was serious. “Why bother?”

“Even a quarter adds up,” my aunt told her. Finally, just to see how much it would add up, my mom decided to commit to saving. It was worth a shot, she thought. She wanted to see if my aunt was right. Her saving started as an experiment more than anything else.

“But once I started, I didn't stop,” she told me. “I stuck to it. That's why you had crappy clothes when you were little.”

Patience

One trait my mom has that's always eluded me is patience. I guess when you're poor, time is one of the few assets you have. My mom always took advantage of it.

“Time heals all,” she would say when I was young and crying over a breakup. She acknowledged how trite it sounded and always added, “But it's true.” As someone who's always on the go and trying to beat the clock, I've never understood my mother's bond with time.

But when it comes to saving, this patience has worked in her favor.

After putting her mind to it, my mom soon had a hundred dollars. I remember seeing it in a shoebox in our closet once. Woah, a hundred bucks! I yelled, and my mom quickly hushed me, warning that you don't announce things like that.

She put that money in a savings account, where it garnered something like “five percent or eight percent interest. Nothing like today.”

Six months and as much overtime as possible later, her $100 had grown into $1,000. She put it in a CD.

“Getting to ten thousand probably took me like, three or four years,” she recalls.

Seizing Opportunities to Save

“What about things like health insurance?” I asked. “It's expensive to raise a kid.”

“Fully covered,” my mom said, remembering clearly. “I made sure to work enough overtime to be eligible. Anytime they offered overtime, I volunteered.”

Later, my mom would go back to school and focus on earning a real salary, but at this point on her financial journey, she was stuck.

Only, she didn't see it as stuck. The more she got to work, the more she saw it as an opportunity to save. She says the overtime, high interest rates and low rent were “lucky breaks.”

“Not everyone sees overtime as lucky. Everybody gets lucky breaks, but it depends on you seeing it as a lucky break.”

“But what if you're worth more?” I asked. “What if your time is more valuable than the overtime they're offering?”

“Oh, I don't know. When you're poor, it's not about how much you're worth; it's about how much you need.”

It sounded sensible, but part of me couldn't help but find it sad. She reminded me of a guy she worked with. He was an engineer, making good money, she said. When the economy turned sour, he turned to the meat department at Kroger. “Of course he was worth more. But he was broke. What are you supposed to do?”

From overtime to interest rates to a job opening at Stop-N-Go, what others saw as normal, my mom saw as opportunity. She took full advantage.

“It's like your Dad — ” she said, turning her voice into a whisper. ” — how your Dad used to be with money. When he changed his mind-set, he got this refund check. He said, ‘Gee, when you're saving, money comes from nowhere.' I told him, ‘No, these things happen all your life. But before, they were gone before you could think about it.”

To be fair, my dad is more money savvy than my mom in many ways. He's taught me to negotiate, earn more and value my time, for example. But she convinced him to look for opportunities to save.

My mom's story isn't for everyone. Some would balk at it and argue that, sure, a quarter adds up, but it's a realllllly slow way to get rich slowly. But considering where she is now, compared with that little girl eating trash from the street, I'm pretty damn impressed. It makes me think I can do even better, as she's afforded me a better situation.

“I'm so happy where I am, and I feel like, financially, I'm blessed,” my mom now says. “But I do have regrets. I could have done better for you. You could have had better day care. You could have worn better clothes.”

And again, my mom starts to pause, and I can hear her tears, thinking about our past.

“Maybe you would have had better days, Kristin. I didn't have to sacrifice for you. Your childhood could have been better.”

Ironically, those years include some of my very favorite memories. I had no idea we were giving anything up. If that's sacrifice, I was happy to take one for the team.

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Petra
Petra
7 years ago

Keep telling your mum that you remember a happy childhood.

And try to create more happy memories yourself, they do not depend on money, as your mum has proven.

Babs
Babs
7 years ago
Reply to  Petra

As a parent I second this wholeheartedly!

Excellent post. I am very glad I read this today.

Phoebe
Phoebe
7 years ago
Reply to  Petra

I completely agree! Lovely post Kristin – I needed this, thank you!

M
M
7 years ago

What a beautiful, healing story, Kristin. And the perceived sacrifices your family made probably go back generations. You are now the beneficiary as will be your future family. I hold dear a story from my family. My great-grandfather left Germany with his father and eldest sister to claim a parcel of land in Minnesota. When their father was to return to Germany and retrieve the rest of the family, great-grandad and his sister were instructed to stay put and tend to the livestock (their food for the winter). Since there wasn’t yet a house , they lived alone under a… Read more »

Kay
Kay
7 years ago

Such an inspiring story. I think many of us can benefit from taking a step back and put into perspective our struggles with investment vehicles and debt repayment.

Thanks for the article, Kristin!!!

My Financial Independence Journey
My Financial Independence Journey
7 years ago

It’s great that you have people around you who encourage you to save money and build a better financial future. Everyone around me encourages me to spend money. Usually on things that I don’t really want or need at the moment.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

I hear you there! It’s a shame that’s it’s socially acceptable to encourage people to buy but not to save.

I think that’s why I continue to read PF blogs — sometimes things can get a little judgemental, but the over all message is a good one.

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
7 years ago

Great story! Kudos to your mom, and thanks for sharing it.

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
7 years ago

This is a great post, Kristin! Thanks!

Diane C
Diane C
7 years ago

I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Anchee Min’s latest memoir, “The Cooked Seed” this week. She tells a fascinating and similar story. She was born in China and came to this country with literally nothing. A friend who had read an advance copy, said she got through the saddest parts by reminding herself that the author is happy now. It’s a beautifully written, inspiring tale. If you’re not a book buyer, you can request it from your library. While you’re waiting for it, you can read her first memoir, “Red Azalea”, which was published in 2006 to… Read more »

Kingston
Kingston
7 years ago

Thanks, Mrs. Kristin’smom, for letting your daughter share your inspiring story with us.

John S @ Frugal Rules
John S @ Frugal Rules
7 years ago

What an awesome and inspiring post, thanks so much for sharing it. This is just another reason why stepping back and gaining perspective is so helpful and can be so insightful.

Beks
Beks
7 years ago

I have never posted before today. This post brought tears to my eyes. It’s about remembering whats important and while I am trying to do the best with my money – people matter more, it’s the reason why we do what we do financially. Your story reminds me of my grandmother who migrated from terrible poverty(and racism) in the south to move to the north with very little education. She was able to buy a house with her husband and raise four wonderful children (she tells us stories of reusing aluminum foil…) who all had successful, educated children. This and… Read more »

Wendee
Wendee
7 years ago

this is my favorite GRS post. Thank you!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago

I read this post very early this morning and I loooooooooooved it. I just have one question that I hope it’s not prying (I swear it’s not) but would help me understand the story better. If it’s not nosy– damn! I don’t know how to ask. Let’s see… So, the story begins with your mom raising you alone and rooming with your aunt, but at the end you mention your dad and what he taught you. The only reason I ask is because it confused me. Could you please clarify? But regardless. Looooooooved the story. Which is why I’m asking.… Read more »

Beth
Beth
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I’m glad someone else brought this up. I hate being nosy, too, and I absolutely loved this post. But how did your father figure into your financial family history?

Peach
Peach
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I assumed it was her stepfather, but not sure..

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Ah! I should’ve clarified. Yes, he’s my Stepdad. I just call him Dad. He and my mom met when I was still pretty young. Actually, they met at Kroger! He worked produce, and she was in the cheese department. Financially, we did better when my dad came along, but we still struggled plenty. My parents had a tough time making ends meet and deciding how to earn more and all of that. Nowadays, though, they’re very secure and comfortable, and I’m proud of how far they’ve come! Thanks for the kind comments. Mom Wong will be happy to read them,… Read more »

kris
kris
7 years ago

Kids don’t always suffer from the things we as parents might regret. When I went back to grad school, my daughter thought everyone got free school lunches, and she liked the graduate student dorms because she could swim any time since there was a lifeguard (her friends may have had pools at home, but they had to wait for parents to be free to sit outside!). She did think the only television channel was PBS. I don’t think it was so hard for the kids as it was for us as parents that a good weekend was one that we… Read more »

Neel V Kumar
Neel V Kumar
7 years ago
Reply to  kris

Hehehe I grew up in a small town in India and there used to be exactly one channel on TV and the programming was simply crap. Yet, somehow, it seemed magical to watch TV.

Alea
Alea
7 years ago
Reply to  Neel V Kumar

He,he,he, same in Eastern Europe, black and white TV with about 4 hours of programing in the evening, the portal to the outside world. Magical!

RandyC
RandyC
7 years ago

Wonderful post! made me think back to my 1950s childhood in Ohio – no inside plumbing (outhouse), Saturday night bath in a washtub, sometimes cabbage soup was dinner – but, it was some of my happiest times. No feeling of deprivation, because neighbors and school mates were in the same situation!

Juli
Juli
7 years ago

I hope this doesn’t start a debate, because that truly is not my goal. But stories like this remind me of why I have such an issue with the “1% vs 99%/Occupy Wall Street” stuff. Here in America, even if you are working a minimum wage job and getting food stamps, you are still most likely living with far more than a large portion of the world’s population. Thank you for sharing your mom’s story with us. Having more is not necessarily a bad thing, but using what you already have wisely is the best way to live.

Jake
Jake
7 years ago

What a great story about your mom. My parents didn’t go through that hard of times, but they definitely were not well off for quite awhile when I was growing up. Just like you, I didn’t realize we were “sacrificing” because I had everything I wanted and I didn’t know any better. Being “rich” is so much about your perspective and being happy with where you are at. There are always going to be people who make more money than you or have a bigger house, etc. Just try to enjoy where you’re at and work at getting better.

abby
abby
7 years ago

best story ever and it was just the wake up call i needed to stop whining about not being able to afford *blank* while trying to save.

Tonya
Tonya
7 years ago

Thanks for the reminder that not having internet on your phone isn’t a REAL sacrifice. We live in a generation of wealth and expensive electronic toys. I don’t remember the last time I had to make the choice between eating and paying a bill; I don’t really sacrifice. Thanks for the reminder.

Almarie de Villiers
Almarie de Villiers
7 years ago

This is a great story and very inspiring. I remember my mom buying from a cheap clothing store for us, while my friends wore clothes from the fancier, fashion stores. I didn’t have a dress for every occassion and didn’t get a car for my 18th birthday. Gee, I still cannot afford a car on my salary, but I am making changes that will pay of in a couple of years. And this year (I am 39) is the first year that I am saving. We are told that here in South Africa we are saving too little. Apart from… Read more »

Kyle
Kyle
7 years ago

I have experienced some “lean” financial times myself but this story really makes me appreciate that while I may not be rich, I should really be grateful for what I have. Glad I stopped by today.

Moe
Moe
7 years ago

Thank you

Rocky
Rocky
7 years ago

The last few paragraphs made me tear up. What a beautiful article, full of valuable reminders – especially as I work for Kroger also and sometimes it’s hard to imagine saving, paying off student loans, etc, while working in retail.

Jon
Jon
7 years ago

Kristin, well done !!! Your Mom set the table well for you. Not the case for others in your generation. I wish more would be written about the small fortunes that are hidden in daily spending routines and impulse purchases. “Buy two, get one free.” “The more you spend, the more you save.” Mobile access. Cashless transactions. The deck is stacked against us.

tamarah
tamarah
7 years ago

Thank you so much for sharing.

Alea
Alea
7 years ago

Great article. DIRT POOR! I rember that so well, back in Eastern Europe. One time it got so bad, we had no money for food and no food in the pantry. (But this was due to my father’s pipe dreams of being a millionare with no business sense, but that is nother story, maybe I should write an article on that). Anyhow, we were rescued in the end. Not by relatives, not by neighbors (my mother was not going to ask, again), but by our lilac trees. We had three beautiful lilac trees, one white and two purple that were… Read more »

krantcents
krantcents
7 years ago

Your Mom’s story put things into perspective! Savings can occur no matter how little you earn. In fact, I just wrote an article about a minimum wage millionaire. If a minimum wage individual can save and invest, we all can!

Peach
Peach
7 years ago
Reply to  krantcents

Would like to read it when it’s out–those stories always inspire me!

Marcy
Marcy
7 years ago

This reminds me of a story about my dad’s family. Folks can become quite creative and “make do” when necessary, can’t they? Dad was born in the midwest on his family’s farm, the 5th of 6 kids. Dad was a young teen during the Great Depression. Once a week the “ice man” would drive his horse and wagon up to the house and deliver a large block of ice for the family’s ice box. The ice would keep the food in the ice box cold and was very welcome during the long hot, summer months. One summer evening a thunderstorm… Read more »

Peach
Peach
7 years ago

Your mother sounds like a treasure. I thought it was wonderful that you took the time to really HEAR her–what a gift. Some of the best memories of my life were spent hanging out with my mom and listening to her stories and her opinions on growing up poor in the south, her great work ethic, men, money, cooking, whatever.

We so honor our mothers when we actually hear them. Great post,Kristin!

mm
mm
7 years ago

Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story

celyg
celyg
7 years ago

Great post, this is what GRS needs more of (and used to have in spades) — stories about people, that *also* make you think about your financial situation. Kudos! This is a good reminder for me. I’ve been bemoaning and worrying about some financial issues over the past few weeks, but this made me realize that every one is related in some way to my good fortune. Not a single “problem” is about not having enough or having to truly sacrifice. I am so so lucky, and — if anything — I need to save more, sacrifice more, and be… Read more »

Jan
Jan
7 years ago

My mother always spoke about eating dandelions because they had no other food during the depression and she had to quit school at the end of 8th grade and get a job. She also talked of only having one shirt and 2 skirts to wear. Thanks for reminding me of this as I hadn’t thought about it in quite a while. I love you mom.

LC
LC
7 years ago

Great story sometimes hearing what other people went through is good motivation and help put your life into perspective and to realize the things we take for granted others cherish.

JW
JW
7 years ago

Thanks for sharing such a great story.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

Loved the story — thanks for sharing, Kristin! I like the party about “lucky breaks” — sometimes people forget how lucky they to have things like good health, a loving partner, a job, etc. I know I sometimes need to remind myself to count my blessings.

Right now I’m starting to think about saving for my next car — it seems like such a huge goal that I don’t know where to start. I’ll take your aunt’s advice. 🙂

Samantha
Samantha
7 years ago

Thanks for this great post and great story!

Jamie
Jamie
7 years ago

I got weepy! I LOVE when you post stories about your mom, Kristin– They always, always, remind me to be appreciative of everything I have.

Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce
7 years ago

Amazing story, and thank you for sharing. My Asian grandparents have similar stories that are rife with incredible perseverance and patience, above all.

CYH
CYH
7 years ago

My mom had a similar story growing up in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Though she may have had it a little better than your mom, she gave up her own hard earned income so that her younger sisters and brother could continue their schooling. It was a difficult time for her, and she has worked hard to be able to send her own three daughters to school all the way through college. Very touching post and I can completely relate!

Vin
Vin
7 years ago

Inspiring. When I finished reading this post, I was hoping it was a book and I’ll finish reading it. Thank you.

Julie Fitzwater
Julie Fitzwater
7 years ago

Very fine Kristin, it proves that a woman is good financial expert 🙂

bobj
bobj
7 years ago

We all wish we would have listen to our parents when they said save your money… not so sure about the “eat your vegetables” bit. I still hate them.

Johanne Miller
Johanne Miller
7 years ago

I’ve been reading GRS for awhile now. This post connected with me more than anything else. I have great admiration for you and your mom, Kristin. Thank you for sharing your story!

Mrs Jim
Mrs Jim
7 years ago

I am LOVING your mom – she’s me, only I’m Irish (thank God I’m in America) – we both had the same story. Only I don’t have any regrets about our kids’ childhoods. They were fed, protected, raised well and very well educated on OUR dime. Count your blessings!

Edward
Edward
7 years ago

Great story, Kristin! My favourite quotes: “My definition of sacrifice is what most of the world would call lavish,” (very smart!) and “That’s why you had crappy clothes when you were little,” (sorry, but made me burst out laughing.) Sometimes when I think I’m depriving myself, I think of what my ancestors have been through. My grandfather worked as a bush pilot for a mining company. He got trapped in a blizzard up north in the 1940’s for a whole week with nothing to eat but a giant bag of onions. “…But we used to eat onions the same as… Read more »

cherie
cherie
7 years ago

consider me inspired by your mom too 🙂

Margaret L
Margaret L
6 years ago

I agree — Thank you for sharing this story. Keep telling your Mom that you recall your childhood as being happy! I have a story sorta like that… The year all the kids in the neighborhood went to (private) kindergarten, but I did not. My mom has always said they thought I was “smart enough” not to need to go to kindergarten. But my little sister (just 18 mos. younger) did. Now in my adulthood, I realize they couldn’t afford it for me, but a couple of years later, they could afford it for my sister… I just remember being… Read more »

Eva lee
Eva lee
6 years ago

Thank you for wiring this inspiring story. Like you, I never really listen to my Mom’s stories until recently and just dumbfounded when I hear them. I like how your mom said, it’s not what you think you are worth but you just need to do whatever you need to support the family.
Thank you again for writing this and sharing with us.

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