Live in USA

5 min read

November 02, 2020

3 Financial Norms I've Adjusted to as an Immigrant

How many of these have you experienced?

Few may realize it, but personal finance is deeply cultural. My parents, who grew up in South Asia, taught me a whole different set of personal finance rules compared to the American peers I grew up with.

As such, much of my life has been both learning what the norm in the US is and figuring out which personal finance rules I wanted to keep, ditch, or compromise on. For me, the lines are still blurred and I continue to learn as I grow, but these were the main financial adjustments I made, living in the US but growing up with the norms of my immigrant parents.

1. Allowances (or General Lack Thereof)

I hope other immigrant kids can commiserate with me on this one: no allowance!

Admittedly, my parents didn’t get an allowance for chores, either, but my classmates in school certainly did. I’d always be envious listening to other kids brag about the toys they bought after saving up their allowance for a few weeks, but despite my begging and pleading, I never got an allowance. Or, to be frank, a chore calendar. It was just expected that I would help my parents around the house when I had the time and if I didn’t, and had to study for an exam, that was also OK. For American children, though, there was often a strict chore calendar and those chores had to be prioritized. As a reward, they would receive monetary compensation from their parents.

While I loved the concept, and honestly still do, my parents didn’t understand why they had to give me money after they had already given me a place to live, food to eat, and abundant love. In their eyes, I could always ask them for money.

And while that was true, the advantage I saw in an allowance was being able to buy frivolous items or impulse buys, just for the sake of bragging rights. I’m glad my parents didn’t indulge in these whims of mine, instead teaching me the value of money and having me make strong arguments every time I asked for money.

But, that being said, while they did indulge me on my birthday or during holidays, I still believe there’s an argument to be made in favor of allowances and learning to start saving money from a young age. Both methods teach you the value of money, early on, but I definitely wish I had had an allowance growing up and certainly feel as if I missed out on an American personal finance rite of passage, as a result.

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2. Splitting the Check (or Talking About Finances with Friends)

When it came to dining out with friends, my parents operated from a place of abundance. Strong believers in karma, they almost always covered the cost of a meal, allowing their friends to cover next time, as repayment, but mostly believing that no good deed went forgotten in the universe. My parents wanted to be able to treat close friends while they had the means — given that many others had treated them earlier, and this was simply their way of paying it forward.

Although this exists even outside of immigrant culture, I have found that the norm swings towards splitting the check, neatly, and Venmoing others for the cost of a meal. While I’ve grown to embrace this, my instinct is always to have a loose policy around money with friends, covering a meal or an event here-and-there while they cover something else. I don’t like counting pennies, I guess since I never saw my parents do it with close family friends, but I’ve grown to realize that I have to respect other people’s wishes around money when it comes to finances and friendships.

For some friends, mostly other immigrant friends, my parents’ method works and is the norm. But with others, we always Venmo one another or split the check. I’m OK with both, but it’s been an unexpected adjustment, for sure.

3. Weddings (and Spending Money to Celebrate Loved Ones)

By now, most 20-somethings know that weddings are expensive. Even if it’s not your wedding, there are flights and hotels and outfits to purchase. For most people, though, a wedding is fun and the costs can be as extravagant or as minimal as you need.

The only exception to the rule is, of course, the bridesmaid: a concept I, to be honest, did not grow up with! I saw bridesmaids on TV, of course, and in rom-coms, but I didn’t fully comprehend the financial burden of being a bridesmaid until I was asked to be one myself.

Now, I don’t know when I’ll get married, or even if it’ll happen, but I do know that traditional South Asian weddings don’t have bridesmaids. In other words, I’m about to spend hundreds of dollars being bridesmaids to friends I’ve made in America while those same friends will be mere guests at a potential future wedding of mine, simply because of cultural differences.

For those unaware, being a bridesmaid is a huge cost — you can’t pick your dress, have to contribute to a bachelorette party of your friend’s choosing, and are also expected to cover the flight and hotel fare. While I’d expect guests at my future wedding to cover some of these costs, I certainly wouldn’t be micromanaging their outfits, shoes, and jewelry. Though South Asian weddings these days often do include bridesmaids, I suspect for this financial reason of fairness, it’s still not part of the traditional setup and is a compromise many immigrants have come to adopt after, I suspect, spending on other people’s weddings.

These are just a few of the unexpected financial hurdles I’ve come across, but I’m sure there are others I’ve yet to experience or perhaps others I simply didn’t have to experience. Either way, personal finance is a personal choice and combining cultural values within it can make an already complicated situation even worse. I’m not the first to navigate this territory, though, and I certainly won’t be the last as cultural personal finance advice evolves in an ever-changing world.

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Keertana Anandraj
Keertana Anandraj is a recent college grad living in San Francisco. When she isn’t conducting international macroeconomic research at her day job, you can find her in the spin room or planning her next adventure.

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