Posts tagged Jennie's Story
What To Do When Your Family Refuses To Talk About Money

Jennie here.

The cheapest lunch I ever had was at my elementary school cafeteria. It was 25 cents for a reduced meal - one fifth the price of what the other kids paid. Even at ten years old, nobody had to tell me what that meant. 

I was born and raised in a first generation Vietnamese household where openly discussing money was taboo. So in the late nineties, when my dad got laid off his factory job, the whole family had to put up this facade that everything was okay. A lot of it was about “saving face” and “keeping up appearances.” Meanwhile, our debts piled up and problems festered beneath the surface. 

Stopping The Cycle Of Financial Instability

Fast forward to 2017. I’ve got a well paying job, an eight month emergency fund and am currently in the best financial shape of my life. Yet my family remains a black box. 

Worse, I started noticing that my siblings were displaying similar behaviors. Over the past 18 months, I’ve had to bail them out four times, all over issues that could’ve easily been avoided.  Their responses to why they waited so long to ask for help felt like deja vu:

I thought I could handle it on my own.
I didn’t want to bother anyone.
I’m paying off the minimum balance.
I was too ashamed to say anything.

I didn’t want my siblings to pick up the same bad habits as my parents. And because they asked, I decided that 2017 was the year I would make a concerted effort to help free them from the cycle of paycheck-to-paycheck living, of reacting to one crisis after another. 

How to Talk to Family About Money

Here were the five steps that I took:

  1. Map out the problem areas.
    Ivan and I brainstormed the things that we wanted to make sure to cover/ask about with each member of the family. It helped me think more clearly about each individual’s pain points and how we could work to address them.

  2. Have individual conversations.
    If your family is anything like mine, they hate airing out dirty laundry to an outside audience. Private, individual conversations helped control the environment and made my siblings feel more at ease.

  3. Adjust your message to the personality.
    The way I talk about money to Ivan compared to how I talk to my siblings is like night and day. My siblings prefer that I acknowledge the positive aspects of any given situation (i.e. what they’re doing well, what they can build upon); this is a bit hard for me because I know my frustration comes out in my tone.

  4. Ask the right questions.
    Personal finance questions are invasive and sometimes, people can associate their self-worth and pride with money. For example, I suggested to my sister that she sell the car (that she objectively couldn't afford) to get rid of her biggest source of debt -- but she took this as a personal affront and thought I was questioning her ability pay off her car.

  5. Leave the door open.
    Setting my family up with the right tools (e.g. automated savings, retirement funds, personal finance apps, etc) is just the beginning. The hard part is remembering that you can’t force anyone to do anything. All you can do is offer to listen and give advice. My siblings now call me on a weekly basis to share their progress.

My hope is that through this intervention, I can guide my siblings to have a healthier relationship with money than what we experienced as a family. 

As for my parents, I realize that it's harder to change people the older they get. I’m hoping that over time (and with persistence), they’ll eventually be able to accept help in preparing for the next chapter in their lives.


One Girl's Journey To Financial Independence

Jennie here. 

As a first generation Vietnamese-American growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I didn’t have a lot of money growing up. Both my parents had to work full-time minimum wage jobs just to support me and my three siblings. Then in the mid-90’s, my dad got laid off from his factory job and my family fell on hard times. We even had to go on welfare just to make ends meet. 

Based on these experiences, I realized from a pretty young age that I was going to have to fend for myself. And if I didn’t figure something out fast, I’d be stuck in the same cycle of poverty and financial dependence for the rest of my life. So at 14 years of age, I applied for a special work permit and got my first job as an ice cream scooper for Cold Stone Creamery.

I remember the company policy at the time required all Coldstone employees to sing for their tips. Ah, isn’t childhood trauma fun?  


I can assure you that they're dying on the inside.


Looking back on my humble beginnings, there were three pivotal moments in my life that set me on my journey to financial independence: 

1. Paying My Way Through State College (With Zero Debt)

1. Paying My Way Through State College (With Zero Debt)

1. Paying My Way Through State College (With Zero Debt)

Before graduating in 2011, nobody in my family had ever gone to college. And that could have easily been my path. When I was 14, my parents sat me down and told me that they couldn’t afford my education and that I would have to figure something out for myself. 

So for the next four years, I worked my ass off through multiple part-time jobs while attending high school. Unfortunately, by the end of those four years, I still couldn’t afford the $20,000 out of state tuition fees, even though I had good enough marks to get into more ‘prestigious’ schools. 

I had only two real options: go to the state school in New Mexico, or take on student loans to go to a ‘better’ school. If growing up poor had taught me one thing, it was to avoid debt at any cost.

So that was how I came to attend the University of New Mexico. 

Looking back, this turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made for the following reasons:

  1. I received several state scholarships and financial aid for simply being a resident of New Mexico (and for good grades).
  2. I could commute from home and save on fixed costs
  3. I came out of school not only with zero debt, but with a surplus of cash

I mean, when you really broke it down, how much should students really be paying for a certain ‘brand’ of education? 


 Outside of maybe Harvard or Stanford, is any school really three times better than your average state school to justify the additional cost? And is any of that worth the financial servitude? 

2. Self Funding my Study Abroad Experiences in Japan (twice!)

2. Self Funding my Study Abroad Experiences in Japan (twice!)

2. Self Funding my Study Abroad Experiences in Japan (twice!)

Studying abroad in Japan had been a lifelong dream of mine since high school, and when I have a dream, I’m damn well going to fight to turn that into a reality. 

I ended up studying abroad in Japan twice.  

The first time I was 16 (and extremely broke). So I started cold calling local businesses and doing my own research on available scholarships. Within six months, I had scraped together enough money and applied for the Youth For Understanding summer program. I didn’t even tell my parents that I got accepted until after I booked my flight out of the country. Where I grew up, people just didn’t see the value in travel the way I did. So I just didn’t bother to ask for permission. 

My second time to Japan was to Kyoto in 2008 on a different scholarship that I had clawed my way into. And that’s where I met Ivan (my husband).

3. Moving to Boston with no money, family, or connections and hustling my way to my first salaried position

3. Moving to Boston with no money, family, or connections and hustling my way to my first salaried position

3. Moving to Boston with no money, family, or connections and hustling my way to my first salaried position

After college, one of the toughest challenges I faced was finding my first full time job. It was made more challenging by the fact that I had moved across the country to Boston, a city where I had no family, few friends, and no professional network. I even had to get a $2,500 loan from Ivan just to stay afloat, while I worked part-time jobs for temp agencies (an underused resource) and Club Monaco (ah, retail). 

In the meantime, I talked to everybody. Customers, co-workers, friends of friends three times removed. I cold-emailed people in industries I wanted to work in and invited them out for coffee. 

Then one day, I was on a flight back from Toronto visiting Ivan and was sitting next to a woman who turned out to be an account executive at a well-known market research firm. We chatted and kept in touch. Next thing I knew, I ended up interviewing for two positions and got offered my first salaried job as a cyber-security researcher! 

So What Have I Learned?

You can only connect the dots looking backwards.
— Steve Jobs

Today, I’m living and working in Los Angeles directly because of that first position in Boston, having followed my mentor to a new cybersecurity start-up based in the West Coast. 


Ivan and I are debt-free and are saving at least 45% of our income towards a bigger dream of a sustainable and nomadic life abroad. One of the biggest things I’ve learned so far in this journey is to always bet on yourself and to never stop chasing a bigger dream.

Because that’s what freedom’s all about.