Essays & Confessions

5 Ways Being Raised By A Refugee Mother Shaped My Relationship With Money

By | Sunday, December 08, 2019

I need to start this article by getting one thing clear: my mom is a complete badass and total expert at surviving on a tight budget. She literally lived through a civil war in her home country of El Salvador. Then, in her 20s, she came to Canada as a refugee, put herself through college (for the second time) in an entirely new language, and built a life for herself.

I respect everything about her and I know how strong she is. But there are certain financial lessons I learned growing up that I’ve had to actively unlearn as an adult. All of those lessons make sense in the context of my mom’s life. However, now that I’m navigating the world as my own person (in modern-day Canada), they’re not necessarily applicable.
In trying to improve my finances, I’ve had to work against certain narratives that had initially shaped my relationship with money. Here are the 5 lessons that I’ve had to question and re-evaluate:

1. The idea that you should always clean your plate, because a poor child in another country is starving to death.

This mentality obviously has its reasoning. It’s indeed true that many children, in countries like El Salvador, are starving to death — and that they would give anything to have access to the food I do. I’m also incredibly privileged to be a food-secure person, and it’s worthwhile to remember that many people are not. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I should force myself to eat every last bite of every single meal out of guilt. 

Tossing out that small piece of food may seem wasteful, but sometimes, you simply don’t have the appetite. It’s not healthy to force yourself to eat food when you’re already full. Especially if you’re trying to cultivate a healthier relationship with food, recognizing and honoring your satiety cues is extremely useful. So, you don’t need to feel guilty if you sometimes have to throw out the crust of your sandwich. 

Of course, if you want to make a difference, you can donate to charities, volunteer with different food banks, or simply work to minimize your food waste. But punishing yourself for occasionally throwing out a small piece of food isn’t necessarily important in the grand scheme of things.

2. That you should never throw anything out, because you don’t know when you’ll need it.

If you’re a fan of Ali Wong, you’ll remember the part in her comedy special Baby Cobra where she jokes about this mentality: 

“I have a hoarding problem because my mom is from a third-world country and she taught me that you can never throw away anything, because you never know when a dictator’s gonna overtake the country and snatch all your wealth.”

It’s true: when you’re living in poverty during a literal war, it makes sense to not throw things out. However, if you’re living in a metropolitan city such as Toronto in 2019, you may not have the same priorities. In fact, it might make more sense to get rid of some belongings, so that you can live more comfortably in a small apartment and avoid the high fees of storing your things.

3. To always go straight to the sale section when shopping.

This is a big one. I used to totally believe that, whenever I went into a store, I should immediately go to the clearance section. I was poor, so why not go straight to the cheapest possible items? While shopping during sales can be useful, it’s not when it helps justify unnecessary purchases. My old boss used to always remind us (we worked in retail): a “deal” is only a deal if you were already planning on buying the item in question. 

If you weren’t looking for a cute pink halter top when you first entered a store, but after seeing that one was on sale for $16.99, you felt justified in buying it (what a deal!), then you got fooled. That was a huge lesson I had to unlearn. I’d spent years focusing on sales and seemingly-good deals which didn’t make financial sense for me. I had to teach myself that — when I go to a store — I should make a list, look for that specific item, and then go home. If I give myself the chance to peruse a sale section aimlessly, I’ll end up convincing myself that I “need” to buy something.

The trick? Make a list of the things you need to buy — get clear on what you need (not what you want) — and then look for sales on those specific items. Check online to make things convenient (apps like Flipp are great for this!). Then, if you thoughtfully purchase that item on sale, you’ve actually managed to get a good deal.

4. That investing is a scary thing that should be avoided.

This lesson definitely came from my dad, too — his parents were Irish immigrants to Canada. Since he didn’t grow up with a ton of money, he was terrified at the prospect of investing any of his earnings at the risk of losing some. I always assumed that this was the best way to approach investing: with great fear and hesitation. As such, I’ve never really invested any of my money. Yes, I use an online bank with no fees and relatively high-interest rates (for checking and savings accounts), but the idea of investing has always seemed terrifying.

Now that I’ve been trying to improve my financial health, though, I’ve realized how important it is for me to invest (especially as a 24-year-old who has the advantage of time). I haven’t started just yet, as I’m paying off the last of my high-interest credit card debt, but once that’s out of the way, I plan on signing up with a robo-advisor like Wealthsimple. The prospect still seems scary, but I actually look forward to exploring this new avenue of growing wealth. Even though I don’t have much money to invest, I figure that even if I put away $5 a week (or some other minimal amount), I can get some experience with the entire process and get the ball rolling.

5. That going to university is the “best” decision you can make financially. 

I think that a lot of people who were raised by immigrant parents can relate: the pressure to go to university can be huge. The idea is that: your parents risked everything to come to this country, so you need to honor that legacy by going straight to a good university. (They didn’t sacrifice everything for you to just “slack off”!)

My mom wasn’t super strict or harsh about this, but the idea was definitely ingrained in my mind that — since I had this great life here in Canada—I should use that opportunity to seek the highest form of education possible. The lesson was that getting a degree would be the smartest decision for my career.
Of course, there is value in higher education. There are many good reasons to consider college/university; however, that is not the only solid path available. Learning a trade, getting work experience, or just taking time off to “figure things out” can all be great options to consider after high school.

Even though your parents may pressure you into the idea that higher education is the “best” decision for you, it’s ultimately your decision. You may realize that college/university is not the right path for you at the moment, and that’s okay, too. And, especially if you’re low-income, a college education can often be detrimental to your financial health. I went to university for about 5 years on a part-time basis, and ended up leaving for mental health reasons before finishing the degree. 

I worked multiple jobs while in school, won many scholarships and bursaries, lived at home for most of my studies, and still ended up with over $5,000 CAD in student loans by the end of it. And that’s just in Canada, as a domestic student! I regret going into university before I was emotionally-stable enough to handle it. I wasted a lot of money tried to fit into other people’s ideals, when I really need to be figuring my own shit out first. 


At the end of the day, everyone has their own history and experience with money. Each of us are shaped by our environments, our life situations, and our loved ones. So, it’s totally normal that we all have different values. Even though I respect and appreciate the lessons that my mom has taught me about money, it’s also important to make my own decisions.

Mercedes Killeen is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor. You can learn more about her work, and order her freelance services, at

Image via Unsplash

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