At Rags to Reasonable, I get to hear stories about what money was like in different childhood homes. What discussions were had (or not had) about money. What the recurring tensions were. I get to see how significantly our parents’ financial beliefs and habits influence our own.
I started getting curious about what it might look like for people whose parents had lived in a different economic structure than the one they themselves grew up in. If someone’s parents were raised in a communist system but they themselves grew up in a capitalist country, would there be discord between the lessons the parents were teaching and what these children were absorbing from the culture around them?
I interviewed people whose parents had come from South Vietnam, Russia, Romania, and Poland to examine this question. Some of the people I interviewed were born in Canada and some immigrated as children.
I have edited everyone’s answers for brevity.
1.What were discussions about money like in your household growing up?
Jennifer (South Vietnam): My parents were often worried about money and discussed how much they had to work (they both had labour intensive and factory jobs, working overnight shifts), yet had periods of struggling to make ends meet. Even as our financial situation became more stable, they often stressed about money. The main message we got was: don’t spend too much, do what you can to cut costs, when you get older and make more income, you won’t have to live like this anymore.
Victoria (Poland): Being in debt was unthinkable. This was instilled in me from an early age. There was a lot of budgeting for household expenses and groceries.
Eddie (Romania): We didn’t really discuss money. My brother and I knew we didn’t have much of it growing up so we didn’t ask for much to begin with.
Joanna (Poland): There seems to be this misconception that a communist society has equal wealth distribution. In theory, yes. In reality, no. When growing up in communist Poland, sure there were rations, but if you wanted anything done, actually done, you had to have money to bribe someone. The bare necessities were always free, but the ‘extras’ were not. Here’s an example: as a child, one day I was playing [with a friend] in the partitioned gardens that each apartment was given. I jumped and fell hard and a rusted nail went into my hand. When I finally was able to see the surgeon in the city (I lived in a village), the diagnosis was that it would [need surgery] Of course, that was covered under basic services in Communism, but the anesthetic was not. Nor did we have the money for ‘the extras.’ Hence, I remember nurses holding me down as I screamed and writhed and cried during the entire procedure. My Mother remembers my screams from the other room, while nurses held her back. I was four.
2. What kinds of behaviours around money did you observe in your parents that felt different than what you observed around you?
Joanna: For lack of a better term, I think it was respected more. And the sharing of it with someone else was a greater gesture of kindness. I think that also comes from the fact that we arrived here with literally a suitcase. One suitcase.
Jennifer: More caution. My parents hardly ever did anything for themselves. While friends’ parents went on trips, nice dinners, bought coffees, I never saw my parents treat themselves to anything. They often went the opposite route: cutting the rotting pieces off of bread, wearing clothes that were too old and torn, only buying what was on sale. They would occasionally treat my brother and I to unnecessary expenses like school trips and pizza lunches, but these rules did not apply to them.
Another behaviour I noticed as I got older was extreme caution with investments and savings. They did not pursue riskier portfolios. They wanted any saving to be liquid and secure.
My parents also made many financial decisions based on a scarcity/fear type mindset. What would happen to you if I died? (Repeated constantly, since I was 4) What would happen if there was a natural disaster or a fire? What would happen to you if x,y,z awful thing happened? I believe this was because they grew up in a war zone, then became boat people (my father was a political prisoner for a number of years), then had to survive in a refugee camp. They wanted money to provide the type of safety that they never really experienced.
Victoria: Behaviours around saving money had to do with groceries – buying in bulk when there was a sale, or waiting for a sale to buy a product that was needed, even when the savings seemed minimal, then buying so much of that product we’d end up with a year’s supply of aluminum foil or canned beans (for example)
Eddie: We only spent money on what we absolutely needed. Other people had cottages and went on vacations but we never did.
3. What kind of advice did your parents give you about money?
Jennifer: My parents (my mother in particular) were okay with money. She slowly taught herself how to navigate a North American banking system, which felt different culturally and logistically. She did not encourage me to buy into typical symbols of wealth, such as fancy cars and luxury goods – this is a common “new money” trope in the Vietnamese community. She told me stories about how hard it was to work in the service industry, or on the factory floor. Her narrative was that white collar folks will always control and look down on you. True security and agency comes from your savings and elevating your educational (and therefore career) status. My parents were big on respectability politics…
Joanna: That it isn’t easy to get, but that the best and most sure way to get it is to be highly educated and work hard. In my house there was just this implicit expectation that our schoolwork would be the priority, that we would get high marks, and go on to University. There was never ever any other option discussed. Because high education and a good work ethic were always the way to financial stability.
4.Did they encourage you into specific kinds of jobs? If so, what?
Victoria: Yes, they always focused on “prestigious” jobs. My mom and grandma really pushed for lawyer.
Jennifer: I routinely got messaging about what a “good job” was vs. a “bad job”/”not a real job, more of a hobby.”
Vika (Russia): Anything that would have to do with the English language so that I can leave Russia. They didn’t care what type of job specifically (that being said they are very prejudiced against customer service) but they wanted me to to have some kind of education. They would say that without an education you are “dirt.”
5. What did fights about money centre on when you were growing up?
Victoria: One parent spending more freely, while the other was more careful (frugal) about what was spent. My mom grew up in communist Poland so coming to Canada was a big change for her. It seemed like everything was available. So she would be way more free with her spending. Whereas my dad, who was born in Toronto, was raised by Polish immigrants who taught him to be very careful with money. They had lived through the 2nd World War so they also had a totally different and unique perspective on finances.
Jennifer: We did not fight a ton about money. As a child, if I asked for something my parents usually replied “I didn’t come all the way to this country and work so hard for you to _____ (buy candy, ask for clothes, buy a CD).”
Vika: The fights would be when one of the parents wasn’t open about what they spent money on. Let’s say my mom would give my dad (she was the “breadwinner” in the house) 6 thousand rubles for my dad to do groceries but he would return home with groceries worth of 3K and would ask her for more money on something else. When she mentioned that he should have had 3K more left, he would say gibberish and wouldn’t really explain what they were spent on.
Joanna: My parents came from a very sexist society, so when my Mom started to outpace my Father in her career and income, things became very tense in the house.
Rags to Reasonable Community Outreach Coordinator
Emily Nixon is an actor/writer/director/filmmaking Swiss Army Knife. She is also a big money nerd and Community Outreach Coordinator for Rags to Reasonable.
She came to this work after becoming completely fed up with living paycheque-to-paycheque and being too afraid to look in her chequing account. She is passionate about empowering other artists and variable income earners to keep doing what they love and feel confident about their finances.
Email Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org