The importance of financial balance — a conversation with my mom about money
It seems like an odd goal for a kid; but when I was little, I wanted to be financially secure. Of course, I didn't put it that way. Instead, I declared, “When I grow up, I want to be rich.” Incidentally, so did my parents. I remember rolling quarters with them, while they explained to me the importance of saving. At a young age, I realized I'd need money to do many of the things I wanted to do: travel, live in the big city, and buy stuff at the grocery store without feeling guilty. “Save your money,” they told me. “It adds up.”
But as I grew up, I began to feel like it was wrong to care about money. I was afraid to think too much about it. I felt greedy. Or boring. Money, as a topic of conversation outside of my immediate family, became taboo. Because of that, I absent-mindedly associated personal finance with selling out, working too much, being materialistic.
So when I found Get Rich Slowly, I was surprised by the content and the discussion. J.D. wrote so openly about his own financial situation. So did the readers. And what I always felt about money, despite trying to ignore it, was plainly explained here: Personal finance isn't about greed or materialism; it's about security, control and the freedom to make your own choices. You can tell yourself money isn't important, but we all use it at some point. You might as well make it work for you, rather than the other way around.
Partly because of this, Get Rich Slowly has been my favorite place to write. The reader support has also made it a positive experience for me. While I've certainly come across critics — this is the Internet, after all — I've never had so many people I've never met support my writing, opinions and financial decisions. As someone who second-guesses nearly everything, that's been pretty encouraging. It's nice knowing that many of you are on the same path, with the same mindset, learning similar lessons.
Most every time I've had an article due, I've thought about your feedback and wanted to write something you'd not only find useful, but also appreciate. I won't lie — some weeks my brain was pretty fried, and I didn't have much bandwidth for financial philosophizing. But most of the time, I worked really hard to repay your support by trying to write something that's not just practical, but also meaningful. That's not easy for me, but it's been worth it, if not just for the fact that it made me think about my own financial situation a little more.
But, sadly, this will be my last official post for Get Rich Slowly. I've mulled over what to write about for a while, and I hope this will work.
I've noticed that readers seem to really appreciate the posts that contain stories or insights from my mother. I know slow and steady wins the race, but I still don't understand the “get rich slowly” experience nearly as well as she does. In fact, I once reached out to her for a guest post. She was shy about her writing, so she declined. But I convinced her to at least do a Q&A to share her story, her thoughts on personal finance and how she went from extreme poverty to financial stability.
Thank you for supporting me as a contributor, and I hope you'll follow my writing endeavors on my personal blog (kristinwong.tumblr.com).
KW: What were things like for you when I was a kid?
Mom Wong: It's hard for me to say we were poor because I've lived in really, really poor conditions before. To be honest with you, I never really felt like we were poor. It was rough, timewise. It was rough not being able to be at home and spend time with my kids. But we were always able to save a little bit.
KW: Yeah, you've always been great at saving money, even when you earned next to nothing. What motivated you to save so well?
Mom Wong: For me, it's a sense of security and freedom. If I get sick, then I can just go to the doctor and not worry about it. I have the freedom to use coupons or not use coupons. I can look for things that are on sale, but I don't have to, you know? I have more options. Of course, money is not everything. But it does make things easier, because it gives you a sense of security. Options.
KW: What about striving to earn more? Don't you think that's more important than focusing on saving? What about following your dreams? Don't we let money get in the way of our pursuits sometimes?
Mom Wong: I think you need to have balance. Sure, you need to look for a better job. But at the same time, you should always save, because you don't know what happens in the future. You need both. If you just follow your passion and don't save, the balance is off, and — Well, I'll give you an example. Remember when your Dad had that Tae Kwon Do school?
KW: Yeah. You guys fought a lot.
Mom Wong: That was the time that I felt we were most poor. We were struggling. We were solely using my salary, barely above minimum wage. He wasn't bringing in any money, but that was his passion at the time, and he really wanted to go for it. So he went for it, and he had to quit Kroger because he couldn't keep up with both. So we sacrificed. And he was good at it. He had the ability — that was his skill and passion — but it didn't work out. After two or three years, he wasn't making money with his passion.
KW: So you're saying you should follow your dreams, but be realistic about it?
Mom Wong: Well, what do you do? We sacrificed for a long time. You've got to come to a realization: Do I keep making my family sacrifice? No matter how good you are at something, you might have to find other avenues if one doesn't work out. Now, he has a new job. He's doing marketing, and he found that's his passion too. If you're lucky enough, you can find your passion and make money at the same time. Not all of us are that lucky. Part of life is survival. And what does it take to survive? Money.
KW: So explain how it's about balance.
Mom Wong: Well, I was so worried about saving. I was unhappy. I think it did affect the family. Because you thought that we were so poor. I remember we couldn't afford to buy you the clothes you wanted and — Did you get made fun of at school for your clothes?
KW: Well, that, among other things…
Mom Wong: See? I hate that you went through that. I should have just given in more and let you buy the things you wanted.
KW: No way! I'm glad I grew up that way. It taught me to be a be a better judge of character. I didn't want to be friends with the type of kids who make fun of people for the way they dress.
Mom Wong: Okay. That's true. But still, I wish I would not have put all my focus on saving because I was not a happy person. I wanted to save so much, right? I stressed myself out over that.
KW: How did you change?
Mom Wong: I think I changed very gradually. I got older. Of course, I still save. But I don't wig out. We were still surviving. It's not like I don't know where the next meal is coming from. We might not be able to go roller skating or bowling, but we were still able to put food on the table — and that should be the main thing. You can still be happy with what you have. I guess a lot of it is about attitude.
KW: It seems that Dad was always focused on earning more, investing. Eventually you guys stopped working against each other and started working together, and that's when things seem like they got better financially, right?
Mom Wong: That's true. I never thought about that. I kept blaming him. We actually kind of learned from each other. He's right about taking risks. I used to think, I'm 100 percent right. I thought, “He just spends money.” I used to think he was irresponsible; I was the only one who had the mind to save. But now, I realize he's right, too. You have to take risks. You have to take the chance. You've got to make your money grow. So he's right about that. He saves it, but he uses part of it to take risks — to invest, to take a chance so it can grow. It's kind of liberating to realize I wasn't totally right — to be open to other ideas.
KW: What's been the best financial decision you've ever made?
Mom Wong: The smartest thing I did was save and not spend frivolously. Our couch is older than your brother. I'm proud of that! I feel so satisfied because I feel like I got my money's worth. I feel that I'm not being wasteful. I'm using something to its maximum.
KW: But you said saving so much made you unhappy!
Mom Wong: But I've evolved over time; I don't stress over it. I still set goals. But they're more realistic, they're more attainable. Don't get me wrong. I still have my goals and my plans to save for my retirement and all that, but the difference is that I don't stress out over it now.
If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to be happier. I was almost as unhappy as I would be if I didn't have the money to save. I could have saved the same amount, but I didn't have to be constantly worried.
KW: Is that true, you think? You think you could've saved the same amount without being so obsessed with it?
Mom Wong: I think so. I think maybe even more. Because if I had a better attitude, I might be more willing to take a chance on investing it in some way.
KW: What else would you tell yourself if you could go back in time?
Mom Wong: I would tell myself, it's not that bad. Be happier — You have a family. You have two young, healthy kids. Spend time to be happy with your family. Things will work out, and, if they don't, be happier about what you have. Focus on that, not what you don't have.