This post is from staff writer Kristin Wong.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.