This post is part of a new series called The Best Investment I Ever Made — click here to read more!
There’s a toxic part of the culture within the Filipino community I grew up in: whoever earns the most money is considered to be responsible for always helping our relatives and extended family and to pay off debt, whether or not they are not financially free themselves. It’s one of the reasons why my mother, the only college graduate in her family and a U.S. resident for 15 years, wasn’t able to save any money or invest in herself while I was growing up.
I always promised myself that I won’t be so selfless when it came to be my turn in the workforce. But you can’t control your emotions — and a year after immigrating to the USA, I told my mom I’d buy her a car in the future to make it easier for her to get to work. Next thing I knew, she was smiling and showing me a car that was a “great deal” (it wasn’t) — and I knew she deserved to have it. So I bought my mother a car, but I didn’t have any payment plan, emergency fund, or huge savings. I assumed that it would be my biggest splurge-related regret, that I’d become a statistic. But oddly, it turned out to be my best investment and my biggest financial motivator.
For one thing, I have an emotional attachment to it. I’ve been raised to practice the “debt of gratitude,” the culture to mandatorily “give back” when a favor is paid, regardless of whether it was done in kind or not. My mom knew about this pressure and wouldn’t want to force it on me. Unlike many Filipinos, she used to say, “You don’t have to pay me back, it’s my choice to want you to have a good life.” I witnessed how she worked as an executive in the Philippines to a restaurant hostess in the U.S., even without health insurance, just to make sure we went to a private school. She gave and didn’t ask for much. But after gifting my mom a car, I felt a relief that finally, after devoting her time working abroad to help others, it was her turn to benefit from someone else.
Helping my mom financially by buying her a car gave me pride and financial confidence. Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t do it for my ego. For so long, I used to get so intimidated by people who earned and spent more than me. Investing in my mom’s car opened a whole new “adult” world to me. I still admire people who earn six figures or more, but I don’t compartmentalize these people by their titles, salaries, or money anymore. Now I ask, What do they do with their money? I don’t feel less-than or threatened being surrounded by successful, ambitious, or privileged people — I know we’re all just working.
This “splurge” also made me savvier and more responsible with my money. It takes so much energy and accountability to stick to a certain budget, and suddenly allotting $630 a month for a car payment and insurance on top of my rent and food made me really mindful of my priorities. I now have to do my grocery shopping bi-weekly under a strict budget, cook daily, and bring lunches to work. I try to go out at least once a week for networking and to reconnect with friends, but I never go bougie and try to spend under $35 as much as possible. I have to cut my shopping expenses and be very thrifty — I only buy things online now, and only when I really need them. I used to get insecure being around my friends who could afford to go to happy hours every day and order a bunch of drinks without looking at the tab, but now I know I won’t be spending like that ever. Having this newfound, major financial responsibility made me utilize what I have and care less about other people’s business.
It also motivated me to do more, earn more, and be compassionate. As a young professional with just over three years of working experience under her belt, it’s hard to get a job with a high-paying salary. Having the responsibility to pay for my mom’s car and to worry about my financial life for the next 5-10 years because of this splurge has forced me to become better at fighting and negotiating for my worth. While I still can’t just make hasty decisions based on emotions when it comes to my career, I know better than to settle and compromise for less than what I have to offer. Sacrificing a fraction of my salary for something that’s not solely for me is not the best feeling in the world — but it made me open to looking for opportunities to earn extra cash, regardless of the type of job.
Best of all, it’s still a promise that as a daughter of an immigrant, I will not forget where I came from. It’s a sign that, whenever she sees it, she knows that I am still committed to help and to repay all the sacrifices my parents made so I can move out, live in the city that never sleeps, and chase my dream. Anthony Bourdain once caught a glimpse of our culture and said, “Filipinos give — of themselves, of their time their money, their love — to others.” I used to not get it myself. But now I know why tangible gifts can be investments in our community. For me, It’s a reminder that even I followed the beat of my own drum, instead of what they had planned for me, I will still be responsible and will still be out there for them.
Erika Sabalvoro is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer and social and communications consultant from the Philippines. She handles the backend of the social media project Immigrants of America and could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via Unsplash