I wish I had some generic version of “I wish someone would have taught me about investing” or “I wish I knew about compounding interest.” The truth is, while I am thankful I know about both of those concepts now, a decade removed from college, it would not have made much of a difference for me. Those concepts matter if you have discretionary money and all your essential expenses are covered. I do not remember having the luxury of either in college. What I had was a day-to-day reminder of where I stood on the socio-economic status ladder in relation to my peers.
Both my parents worked minimum paying jobs for all their lives. Like most immigrant families, they believed in higher education being the gateway to the American Dream. Having missed the opportunity themselves, they passed the dreams on to their kids. Thankfully, I excelled at school and getting into college came easy. Navigating college, on the other hand, was something I was not prepared for. I filled out the FAFSA form for my parents, applied for loans and hoped for the best. I am not sure why specific moments are burned into my memory, but they are. My college roommate was my first exposure to what it looked like to not have to worry about money. She had a magical debit card that didn’t seem to run out of money and parents she could call to walk her through obstacles. Specifically, she could spend more of her time eating Einstein bagels and figuring out what sorority she wanted to join and less time on how to pay for her books or finding students to carpool with to save on gas money for the ride home. I also remember when my now-ex-boyfriend and I were filling out a data sheet for some survey. There was a question that asked to check the box that closely aligned with your parents’ income, ranging from under 30,000 to over 250,000. Not surprisingly, he checked the top box and I checked the bottom. It was a striking, clear reminder on where we stood. Still, in the face of knowing that we came from two completely different worlds, I tried, endlessly, to fit in with the kids that came from the top of the socio-economic ladder. I was determined to hide my past and pretend to be something I was not. I was ashamed and embarrassed of my family, the jobs they worked, and how little money they made. I hated when people asked me about their careers.
Years removed from college, I am saddened to think about how much effort I spent trying to fit in with the rich kids and how little time I spent being proud of my background. I wish I had, instead, admired my parents’ dignity and how hard they worked to ensure that we never went without food, shelter, or electricity. My parents taught me to never turn my nose up at any job and to always excel at any given task. Those lessons would be life changing. I continued to apply those lessons in every stage of life. I graduated from college, joined the military, pursued a career in higher education, and later found a path into corporate America. Along the way, I found a spouse that grew up with a similar upbringing. We combined our shared values, focused on our careers, and learned as much as we could about smart money management. A decade later, we can now both check that top income box on any survey.