In every house, there is an object that takes on a puzzling sentimental gravity that is rarely proportional to the thing itself. An object whose arrival in the house is shrouded in mystery, but having resided there for so long, it nevertheless becomes a permanent fixture of its ethos. In the Sidrak household, this was an unassuming tin box of Royal Dansk Danish butter cookies, gingerly stowed in the bottom corner of our China cabinet behind rows of ceramic dishes, polished cutlery, and golden serving trays.
If, by chance, you happened upon this precious family heirloom, you would be greeted not by the decadent Danish dessert deceptively paraded on its bright blue cover but rather by the impressive collection of sewing needles, safety pins, and embroidery threads that my mom had quietly accumulated over the years.
As a child, its distinctive blue sheen (and, of course, the fact that it was expressly off-limits) naturally made it an object of great fascination for me. But as the years drew on, the memory of the “Danish sewing kit,” much like the kit itself, gradually began to collect dust. It is only now, looking back as a first-year medical student, that I am able to appreciate the lessons in thrift and prudence that this humble tin box had silently imparted. A puzzling sentimental gravity, I realize, but one well worth explaining.
Truth be told, the Danish sewing kit was neither the first nor the last of my mom’s long list of tricks to make the most of every dollar. My parents were immigrants from Egypt, building a new life for themselves in a foreign country but resolute in paving a smoother path for their children. To them, climbing the steep ladder of social mobility meant that we would have to travel light—both figuratively and literally. We owned very little, yet were rich in what we had. As my mom saw it, saving a dollar was only a matter of 100 pennies or 20 nickels, 10 dimes, five quarters; in other words, no decision was too big or too small to have a bearing on our financial future.
Clothes were never thrown out unless they’d been outgrown or overworn beyond repair (not even by the Danish sewing kit). And even then, my mother would negotiate novel purposes for them around the house: old tank tops and graphic tees were revived as washcloths and mop covers. Similarly, empty pickle jars were refilled with spices and baking essentials, and Président cream cheese containers retired as dignified drinking glasses. Grocery bags were demoted to trash bags, old newspapers were used to wrap and ripen fruit, and plastic hangers from the store officially were sworn in as closet hangers. So thorough were my mom’s tactics that by the time I was first introduced to the “3 R’s” (reduce, reuse, and recycle) in the third grade, I had boasted just shy of a decade’s worth of experience with them.
Instilling those unconscious day-to-day habits in me is my mother’s single greatest financial legacy. Her thriftiness stemmed not from penny-pinching but from an acute awareness of the importance of what she had. In her eyes, to allow something to needlessly go to waste was to disgrace the value it offered. In that sense, memories of my mom loading the last sliver of hand soap onto a fresh bar or diluting a few drops of dish soap with five parts water were my earliest lessons in wealth management. When we ate, we did so with deep gratitude for the blessings on our plate, accounting for every last crumb and storing leftovers overnight in the fridge for the following day’s meals. Eating out was a luxury reserved for special occasions or as a reward for having been on our best behavior (which, admittedly, was a special occasion). When we did go out, we rarely returned with our hands empty; overstuffed to-go boxes and generous stockpiles of plastic straws, napkins, and condiment packets were signatures of a successful Sidrak family outing.
Much to my amazement, even though each of these small decisions alone only dealt with a matter of pennies, slowly but surely, the pennies trickled into dollars. Enough, in fact, for my father to leave his job and return to medical school when I was 13, beginning his career as a physician in the United States. The seven years encompassing his entire training were difficult and, at times, unpredictable. Down one income source, it now felt as though simply “living below our means” was not enough to anchor us financially. We had to constantly be on the defensive, striving to minimize how much we borrowed.
As a teenager in the age of social media, there were moments when I resented how frugal we had to be and desired nothing more than to fold to the pressure of having the latest trend. But looking back, I consider myself lucky to have been my parents’ daughter—to have “lived through” medical school before with my dad and to have had such a positive example of financial wisdom in my mom. When the dollars were few, the pennies counted, and when we counted the pennies, the dollars soon followed.
As a first-year medical student, I have come to realize that in life, as in academics, your results are only as good as your habits. Being raised by a mom who tirelessly prepared hundreds of home-cooked meals to save on the cost of takeout makes it a little bit easier to get out of bed on a Sunday night and meal prep instead of buying food from the cafeteria.
And that’s not even the best part: much like interest, our financial decisions compound over time. This works in our favor, since implementing sound financial practices now sets us on the path to even better practices in the future. In my case, growing up surrounded by the laundry list of my mom’s “life hacks” made those habits second nature to me and gave me the foundation I needed to pick up my own tricks to stretch or save a dollar, like making sure to eat before grocery shopping to avoid impulsive purchases.
All of this is to say that there is no precise formula for financial success, especially in medical school, but in a world where life can feel like a box of chocolates, choose to make your financial life like a tin of Danish butter cookies: functionally versatile and well-equipped.