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Jun 19, 2020

What Dads Can Teach Us About Money

By Jackie Lam

Writer Jackie Lam reflects on her father’s lifetime of frugality and saving.

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This Father’s Day, instead of hopping on a video chat with your pops, you might spend it thinking about how your dad might’ve been a source of inspiration, love, and guidance. And if you’re like me, you might view your relationship with your dad with some mixed feelings. While my father and I butt heads from time to time, I do appreciate the financial advice he’s passed down to me. 

My dad is an eccentric civil engineer who came to the U.S. in the 1970s from Vietnam on an academic scholarship. The second-oldest of 11 children, he was tasked with providing care and advice to his younger siblings. In turn, his money principles are rooted in pragmatism.

Here are the money lessons I’ve gleaned from him: 

Only take your kids out during “kids eat free” days. My parents divorced when I was fairly young, and every Tuesday night my dad would pick up my older brother and me for our weekly outing. My father loved a good deal, and when we ate out, we usually used coupons. He took us to places where kids would eat free with the purchase of a regular entree. We were regulars at Denny’s, IHOP, and Fuddruckers, which at the time offered “kids eat free” nights.

These days, kids can eat free at Applebee’s and Denny’s. I’ve inherited my dad’s love of a good food deal, and frequent restaurants when they have “buy one, get one” (BOGO) specials, and one dollar taco days.

The library is a great resource for entertainment. I spent a lot of time at the library in my youth, particularly during the summers. My brother and I signed up for the summer reading program, where we were rewarded for submitting book reports. We always had a short stack of books, CDs, and VHS tapes checked out from the library in our bedrooms. 

To this day, I usually check out books instead of buying them, and watch movies through streaming platforms that are free with a library account.

Being unabashedly cheap has its advantages. Some of us might spend more than we can afford simply because we fear looking stingy. This has probably never crossed my dad’s mind. He never felt a tinge of shame for driving around a 30-year-old junk car. Or for wearing button-front shirts from the clearance rack at Sears.

In turn, he’s always been able to cover his living expenses. When he returned to the U.S. after being out of the country for nearly a decade, he had trouble securing a job. He was able to subside on very little money working seasonal gigs at the post office, trying his hand at being a bus driver, and going to beauty school to cut women’s hair.

Growing up, I’ve been known to be the “cheap one” among my friends. I’m the go-to person for ideas on how to score freebies and find free concerts and movie screenings in Los Angeles, where I live. For instance, when I moved into my first apartment in my 20s, my furniture was either from IKEA, bought used or picked off the curb. I cooked and showered by way of a battery-powered lantern to save on my electricity bill. By being super frugal, I was able to save, even when my budget was tight.

 You can probably find seven ways to reuse that Centrum bottle. My father is a master of repurposing. He’s used an old vitamin bottle to store his pencils. During one Thanksgiving, to show his craftiness, he created a doggy bag out of a cereal box, handles ripped from a 50-pound bag of rice, and packaging tape. It’s taught me to find multiple uses for a single item. Looking for the Swiss Army knife equivalents when shopping, and buying one thing instead 10, has helped me save over the years.

Put the big rocks in your money bucket first. When my father was an engineering student at the University of Hawaii, he would put a bunch of frozen veggies and a bit of meat in a cooked pot of rice. It was a poor man’s version of meal prepping, and he claimed he could subside on his rice bowl concoction for a week. It was an effort for him to save so he could send money to his family in Vietnam. Because helping his family was most important, he made tweaks to his lifestyle to support his goal. 

I also learned to prioritize my goals. Over the years, I saved $5,000 in my emergency fund while living on my own and taking home $1,800 a month. When my car hit the 10-year mark, I saved up $10,000 within two years for a down payment. 

Sometimes it’s worth it to dole out good cash for quality. As frugal as my father can be, in his later years he’ll occasionally spring for high-quality groceries at the market. “I like quality,” he once replied after I asked him if he ever bought food from the dollar store. He’ll splurge on pricey black garlic and goldenberries from Whole Foods, and organic, free-range turkeys during the holidays.

While I was extremely frugal for most of my 20s and early 30s, I too will spend a little more for things that add value to my life. I splurge on wild-caught fish from Iceland and go for the raw milk. I also make room in my spending plan for wardrobe staples, such as that $100 pair of jeans and fancy boots. These things make me happy.

Go to a state school to save money. You’ll still get a decent education. No need to throw down a huge wad of cash (or take on a lot of student loan debt) for your higher education. My dad was a huge fan of going to public state schools. “You can get a good education at a public school, and it will not cost a lot less money,” he would say.

My older brother and I both went to state schools for our undergraduate degrees—he went to University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)  and I attended University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). When I graduated, I shouldered $10,000 of debt, which was a manageable load for me. I gradually paid it off in seven years.

Cooking at home can be better than eating out. During holidays, we rarely eat out. My dad and stepmom prefer to cook at home. During special occasions like birthdays, Chinese lunar new year, and Christmas, they would prepare a spread of both Vietnamese dishes and traditional delicacies. My dad would cook crab if it were on special. While it takes more time to cook, it could be less expensive than spending $100 on dinner out for a party of four.

You can find us enjoying home-cooked Vietnamese dishes of steamed garlic crab, and a gelatinous quail and egg soup, alongside turkey and stuffing. And you better believe it’s just as good—if not better than food at a restaurant.

Don’t be afraid to follow your own sense of style and taste. My father, for better or worse, marched to the beat of his own drum. His tastes and sense of style are eclectic. He is a lover of both romance novels and Russian literature. He’s obsessed with the Royal Family. He’s not afraid to wear suspenders on top of an oversized sweater, colorblock sweatpants, and slippers. (I have photographic proof.)

Not caring what anyone thinks has helped my dad go against the grain when it came to his financial choices. It probably made it easier for him to do things his way, and not care about impressing others.

I’ve learned that it’s more important to focus on your own sense of style and not follow fashion trends. By buying off the clearance rack, or used items online, and carefully choosing pieces that I like instead of fancy brands, I’ve saved hundreds of dollars a year, or more, on clothing.

Buy used cars and don’t take out a car loan if you can help it. My dad has only purchased used cars—either online or from Hertz used car lots. Cars lose their value quickly, he liked to point out. The 1990 Toyota Corolla he bought has passed several hands throughout the decades. My brother drove it in high school, and when he graduated he handed me the keys. I drove that Corolla for six years, which saved me and my mom the cost of buying a car when I was 16. Plus, driving around a car that wasn’t brand new probably saved us hundreds a year on car insurance..

Only you can take care of your own retirement.
My dad is in his early 70s and has about two more years before he can fully retire from his job with the county. He’s figured out how much he’ll need from Social Security, his savings, and his pension to cover his living expenses during his golden years. And unlike some first-generation immigrant families where it’s expected that your children take care of you in your old age, he’s never put it upon anyone but himself to handle his retirement savings. 

My dad’s diligence with saving for retirement lit a fire underneath me. When I had a day job,I always contributed enough to my employer’s 401(k) plan to get the full match. These days, I’m a super saver. I tuck away as much as I can into my traditional IRA. It’s baked into my budget, and I auto-save $500 each month into my IRA so that it’s fully funded. (The max contribution for 2020 if you’re under 50 is $6,000.)

I also squirrel away money into a Solo 401(k), which is a type of account for business owners with no employees or self-employed folks like myself. Given that my income is inconsistent, I contribute as much as I can into my Solo 401(k).  

My dad can be hard-headed, but I do appreciate the sound money advice he’s offered throughout the years. I learned the value of a dollar, to live within my means, skip the fancier option when the less-expensive one will do, and to do my own thing when it comes to my money choices. While I’ve scaled back on being hardcore frugal over the last few years, being prudent has helped me get by during lean times.

Thanks dad, for being weird. And for being you. 


Written by

Jackie Lam

Jackie Lam is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Salon, Business Insider, and GOOD.


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