When I was in first grade, my parents bought me a puffy jacket made of patches of bright green, red, and yellow stripes. I hated this jacket—it was too big, and when I wore it, the other kids would make fun of me for looking like a marshmallow. I thought I was being so clever when I “accidentally” ripped this dreadful atrocity. Surely, my parents would have to buy me a new jacket. Imagine the horror when my mom sewed the jacket right back up with an additional patch of bright blue. This was my first financial lesson from Mom: if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t need to be replaced. And if it is broken, well, then try fixing it.
My family and I are Vietnamese refugees who came to the US when I was 2. When we arrived, we had nothing but three suitcases to our name. I grew up living in a storage house that flooded whenever it rained, and then we upgraded to a non-insulated, freezing garage. When we finally moved into our first apartment, I was embarrassed to invite friends over because we had furnished our home with an amalgamation of mismatched, donated furniture—we had couches in different colors and a kitchen table with a random assortment of chairs.
Apparently, color coordination is not my family’s strong suit.
When I whined to my mom that all my friends’ houses had matching furniture, she replied, “Stop comparing. We need to live within our means.” Lesson 2 from Mom: don’t spend more than you make just to keep up with the Joneses.
My mom managed the money in our household and always stressed the importance of saving as much as possible in case of an emergency. My mom worked as an esthetician, and my dad worked as a custodian. Because my parents didn’t make a lot of money, my mom saved by being extra frugal. Our clothes were mostly second-hand or bought from the swap meet. When buying groceries, my mom would scour advertisements for coupons to make sure she was getting the lowest price. And I didn’t dare leave anything left over on my plate, including a single grain of rice. My dad had been a starved, political prisoner for over 15 years, so throwing away food was abominable in our family.
I didn’t understand the importance of a rainy day fund until my mom was suddenly diagnosed with cancer when I was 9. She lost her job due to chemotherapy treatments and lost all her hair. But she never lost her dignity, because we had saved enough to get through those months. Lesson 3: never underestimate the importance of savings. You can’t predict what will happen, but you can be prepared.
From what I’ve described, you might think my childhood was pretty bleak, but it was quite the opposite. When I was 10, I visited relatives who had a piano and fell in love with the instrument. I begged my mom for piano lessons, but I didn’t think we could afford them. To my surprise, my mom agreed, and a few weeks later, I started lessons with Mrs. Barton, my lovely 85-year-old piano teacher. A few months later, when Mrs. Barton recommended my parents buy me a “real” piano, I thought to myself, “We could never afford this!” But my parents saved up and bought me a piano a few months later. I took piano lessons for eight years, and in college, ended up teaching piano as a side job to pay for extra expenses.
When I asked my mom how she could afford piano lessons for me but not a new jacket, she replied, “I knew you would gain value from piano lessons. Learning piano taught you the importance of patience, practice, and commitment. That’s what I paid for.” Lesson 4 from Mom: use your money on experiences that create added value.
I’ve used these core principles as a foundation for how I spend money, and over the years, I have also picked up a few extra lessons to enhance my mom’s list. My interest in becoming financially literate stems from growing up poor. I knew I had no fallback, so I took it upon myself to read books on how to budget, save, manage debt, and invest. I check my credit score routinely, pay off all my credit cards every month, borrow as little money as possible, and regularly read financial blogs— including WCI—to learn about how different physicians manage their finances. I am applying for as many scholarships as possible to reduce my debt for medical school.
Medical students love to talk about the extracurriculars they’re involved in or how many Anki cards they have left for the day, but mention money management or loans, and the room becomes uncomfortably silent. I’ve heard, “It’s OK, we don’t need to worry about finances. We’ll make enough money to pay it all back later.” I’m horrified by the lack of awareness in these comments. My lesson 5 is: you need to become financially literate now; don’t depend on a projected income.
I once took a class called Negotiations and Deal-Making, and it’s been the most helpful class in my life—well, next to all the doctoring stuff, of course. In this class, we did mock negotiations every week, and the worst part was we had to watch ourselves after and figure out how to improve—cringe. But through this class, I learned the art of negotiation, and since then, I have always negotiated—whether it’s for a lower internet bill, keeping my rent the same, or a new job offer. I’ve encouraged and pushed my female friends to do the same. My biggest takeaways are in lesson 6: 1) Negotiating isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about coming up with a solution that’s the most mutually beneficial to both parties, and 2) Your biggest power is in the ability to walk away, so know your worth and advocate for yourself.
During one of the most influential talks I attended, the speaker introduced the term, “sweat equity,” which essentially means the time and effort you put into developing something without monetary return. This can mean taking the time to develop relationships, showing up to events and introducing yourself, or spending time doing your research before applying to something. For example, I am applying for the WCI Scholarship. Did I take the time to read all the previous winning essays? You bet I did. Lesson 7: be willing to do the extra work to reach your goals.
Unfortunately, sometimes things don’t pan out even when you try your best, and that’s OK, too. It’s important to appreciate the growth that comes with the process. I’ve applied to ~100 scholarships and have won maybe 10. That’s 90 rejections. My rule of thumb is to apply to everything three times before calling it quits (I still have one more year to try again for the WCI Medical School Scholarship!). The process of financial independence—and life—isn’t linear. Final lesson: everyone starts somewhere. If all else fails, get back up and try again. Three times the charm.
Simple enough, right?