Fleeing Bulgaria as a child and living on little in the US taught me 2 valuable money lessons I live by

  • After fleeing Bulgaria at age 3, my family lived paycheck-to-paycheck in cities all over the US.
  • I learned that saving money is essential, no matter how much you earn.
  • And working doesn’t always guarantee stability: You have to save to protect yourself.

When I was a kid, my father gave me a weekly $7 allowance so I could practice spending and saving money.

It was the summer after fourth grade, and as soon as I had cash in hand, I would ride my bike to the local bulk candy store, Sticky Fingers, and spend it all. I bought Jelly Bellies, sour strawberry belts, gummy sharks, chocolate malt balls, even ice cream if I had the funds. Then I’d eat all of the candy in one day.

I had lessons to learn when it came to managing money. Those lessons would come from my parents’ experiences living through the Cold War in eastern Europe and the realization of their lifelong dream to live in America.

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Lesson No. 1: Always save money

When I was three years old, my parents and I escaped Bulgaria as political asylees. We received asylum in the US.

My parents had been leaders of an underground Pentecostal church in Bulgaria during and after the fall of communism. The transition to democracy was clumsy. My father was arrested several times because of our activist-religious connections, and even my life was threatened.

After surviving that experience, the question quickly became how to survive as immigrants.

One day that summer, my father asked me where I kept the money from my allowance. It’s gone. I told him.

You spent all of it? he said. I nodded. Wasn’t that why he’d given it to me?

You should be saving 10%, even if it’s a few cents. He explained that if I’d saved $1 each time he gave me my allowance, I’d eventually have far more than I received in allowance money each week. This amazed me.

From then on, I tried tucking quarters and dollars in a desk drawer, then a piggy bank. Automated transfers to a savings account weren’t accessible to me yet, so some days my discipline wavered.

That was the beginning of my father’s lessons on money management.

We were nomads in those early years, picking up and moving across the country when times got difficult. All the while, my father picked up a variety of jobs.

Lesson No. 2: Work does not guarantee survival

My father’s jobs were surprising for an immigrant who had learned English but never been immersed in it. At first, he preached at churches and conferences and sold TVs at Sears under fluorescent lights, already adept at the side hustle. Later on he sold security systems door-to-door, delivered pizzas, worked as an IT technician and receptionist in a retirement home, and even sold the Yellow Pages.

With all the effort, and with my mother eventually working as a barista, a hotel employee, and a cashier at Walmart, we still struggled.

We were broke, not poor, my father taught me. Periods of financial and familial peace would be punctured by some sudden loss: the car breaking down, the company going out of business, and we’d be at square one, eating through our savings once more.

At our lowest point, five years after moving to the US, our family of four had $25 in the bank. We spent the last of that money on a motel. A friend helped us find a short-term place to stay the next day.

Now I always plan for stable — and unstable — times

Like many if not all immigrants, my parents and grandparents emphasized the importance of academic excellence and a relentless work ethic as our way out of struggle.

Eventually we found our version of stability. But what my father never educated us on was how to play the long game: saving for retirement. What do you do when times aren’t as scarce as they used to be?

In my senior year at UC Berkeley, one of the last classes I took was on personal finance. I learned that by 24 years old, I needed to have an IRA and regularly contribute to it.

This was the first time I’d heard about saving for retirement or having a long-term strategy for money I didn’t plan to touch for 30 years. There was no such thing in my childhood. We lived week-to-week at best.

I know how soul-grating it is to struggle financially. In the back of my child-mind, there was already fear that my allowance would simply dry up and that would be that: no more candy.

My early financial experiences showed me what I did not want to feel as an adult. Today, I appreciate the lessons I’ve learned from my immigrant experience and the chance to build what wealth I can.

That constant fear of loss is hard to shake, which is why planning long-term and saving consistently is needed for financial—and mental—wellbeing. 

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