This week, I received news that my parents paid off their mortgage! It was a 15-year mortgage on a $100,000 loan. The first thought that came to my mind was “Wow! This is what 15 years feels like” and “Damn! My parents are cool” and “Wow, I am so grateful that they decided early on to take care of themselves, so my brothers and I don’t have to.”
A little background on my parents’ accomplishments. They bought their two-bedroom apartment in New York City (Queens, to be specific) in 2003 for $125,000. This apartment would be nearly triple the price today. They don’t speak English, but have managed to hold steady jobs over the past two decades. Their combined salary has always been around $50K (their best year was a bit over $60K). We moved to the U.S.from Vietnam in 1997, and within six years, they managed to save $25K for a down payment. The amazing thing is that they saved this money while raising three kids, and all of us have college degrees. No, they did not pay for us to go to college, but they helped as much as they could. And no, my family never received welfare (they made too much money to qualify, but as kids, we did receive Medicaid).
So, how did my parents save that much money and to afford a mortgage with such income and the responsibility of raising three kids?
1. Cash was way to go: My parents always have a credit card, but they rarely use it. They only use it for when they need to buy something online. This makes sticking to the budget easy, because once the cash is gone, it’s gone.
2. Food budget: My mom set the budget to be $100/week for a family of five. We never ate out. McDonald’s wasn’t part of the discussion, so when I was older, I thought being able to eat at McDonald’s was cool (oh, how my perspective has changed). I shopped with my mom every week. I was very good at estimating and adding things up, because we only had $100 to spend, and if we went over, we would have to return some items, and it was embarrassing to do that with people watching. We only bought the absolute essential items (no soda or junk food). My mom is skilled at cooking, and since Asian food is eaten family-style, it was cheap to feed a large family. You only need rice to fill you up. We were never hungry and always had home-cooked meals. Mom would also pack lunch for her and dad to go to work. The kids would eat at the school cafeteria.
3. Household items budget: Mom buys things in bulk and on sale. Families go through toilet paper and toothpaste like crazy, so the woman stocks up as much as possible!
4. Clothing and shoes: Only buy things on sale. When the kids were young, we wore hand-me-down items. When I was a teenager and my body was changing fast, I worked part-time as a tutor, earning $40-$50 per week. That became my spending money, and I spent it on clothes, shoes, and savings for college.
5. Gifts: We didn’t have expensive gifts for holidays or birthdays. My parents gave out a lot of red envelops, because it’s a cultural thing. They anticipated these events and always started saving months before the event happens.
6. Utilities and services: Before buying their apartment, we lived in an apartment for $700/mo that included utilities. We didn’t have cable (and this was before streaming services), so we watched very little TV. Internet was our source of entertainment.
7. Mortgage and maintenance fees: When they bought their apartment, their mortgage was around $700 and another $500 for the maintenance fee (which covers real estate tax, electricity, heating, water, and general maintenance of the apartment complex). They insured their apartment with a $400/year policy.
8. No vacation: We never traveled anywhere, but we didn’t need to — we live in NYC, and isn’t that enough of a destination? We went to the local libraries, parks, and just roamed the city when we got older.
9. Education: When we were young, mom would save up money for school supplies. She would watch out for deals and buy them cheap. We never received fancy pens or pencils or folders, but we had the basic stuff — enough to get us through the school year. When we were in college, I worked part-time to earn money to pay for my supplies and I always bought used books.
10. Tax refunds: Every year that my parents received tax refunds, they would save them. “Spend on nothing” is their motto.
We understood at a young age that we all had our share of responsibilities. Dad brings the most money, so he pays for rent/mortgage and any services; mom pays for food and supplies; they save every cent they made. I have worked since I was 14 years old (and have never stopped working); my older brother worked part-time when he was in college; my younger brother got the sweetest deal, since mom and dad were more financially stable when it was his turn to go to college. We all helped with cleaning, shopping, and sometimes laundry. There were times when I thought my parents didn’t love us because they didn’t want to give us stuff.
Looking back now, I know they love us, which is why they decided to invest for themselves so they don’t have to rely on us in the future. My dad retired in November of last year, and with his savings (yes, he has a 401K), he is comfortable. They taught me more financial lessons than I could ever learn in school or elsewhere. Growing up counting pennies has allowed me to be a financially responsible person. For that, I am thankful.
Naya has a sweet job in higher education where she gets to work with amazing people every day. She loves spending time with her husband and her two miniature schnauzers. She is the responsible one when it comes to money.
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