WRITTEN BY: Karina Karazhbey
While being a first generation American comes with countless opportunities and chances to make something of yourself here, it also comes with several personal finance challenges, especially when trying to navigate the US financial system. As a result, most first gen’s and their families grow up with the “immigrant” mindset regarding money and personal finances.
Immigrating from Ukraine to New York came with its own set of challenges, and the US financial system didn’t make the transition any easier. Every life event came with a new set of financial questions that were non-existent in Ukraine. Whether it was translating the terms of my parent’s mortgage or filing my own FAFSA application for college, there were so many new technical things that needed to be figured out. In addition to all that, nothing can really prepare you for the cultural adjustments and mindset shifts I would experience as I watched everyone around me chase the “American” dream.
In Ukraine, like many other places, fully retiring at the standard American age of 67 is practically unheard of. The norm is more like working through your 70s to be able to keep enough cash on you to get by. There are no retirement accounts or social security. The state pension system is falling apart and over 70% of Ukrainians who receive pensions, receive payments of under $70 a month. And because there is no certainty in any government pension plans, the mindset instilled in everyone around me was to always be self-reliant. Work until you can’t, live paycheck to paycheck, keep everything in cash, and just get by.
Because so many of the financial principles that are celebrated in America are essentially foreign concepts to immigrants, it was much easier and more comfortable to stick to what we knew when my family moved here. My parents brought the self-reliant perspective on finance and money from their life in Ukraine to New York. Everything else, we would have to figure out as we went.
As a result of the self-reliant mindset, it is very rare for immigrants to ever reach out for financial help because of their backgrounds. “Financial Advisors” were thought of people who only worked with someone if they had millions in assets. Phrases like Retirement Planning, Investments, Life Insurance, Social Security, and Education Planning were never introduced to them. There had to be a certain life event that triggered the need for a conversation. And on top of it all, the language barrier makes most immigrants hesitant to trust another “guy in a suit” with the money they work so hard to earn.
From a young age, I’ve always helped my parents try to make the best financial decisions, or at least as best as a teenager could! I saw how hard they worked to provide for us and never wanted to become a financial burden to them. Being exposed to the experiences I had helping my parents at such a young age drove me to become educated on what the US financial system really looked like. As a result, personal finance has always been something that was incredibly important to me. Eventually, I was able to help my parents make those unknown financial decisions while also creating a roadmap for myself.
Becoming aware that “self-reliance” isn’t the only way to approach money completely changed my perspective on the world of finance. Setting myself up with the mindset to save from a young age helped me create a plan for myself. A plan that challenges me to keep saving and putting myself in a better financial position. Little did I know I would one day be doing this for a living and helping other immigrants like me realize there is a way to be self-reliant, with a support system.
I am so passionate about what I do and the people like me I get to help. What many first-generation Americans don’t always intuitively realize is how lucky they are to be in the position they are in. They are lucky to have the option to CHOOSE how their financial future pans out. I love being on the other end of a zoom call watching our clients experience the mindset shift I was fortune to have early in my career.
If you are a first-generation immigrant who can relate to my story and we have not yet met, let me leave you with this… If you are one of the many first-generation Americans who aren’t living paycheck to paycheck and are able to save even a portion of their income, you have already come so far and you are ahead of what most of your parents were ever able to do given their circumstances. What you are doing is new and its foreign and it continues to feel uncomfortable. I encourage you to celebrate the fact that your future is yours to create every chance you can. You have the luxury to think about your goals… whether it is buying your first house, creating an annual travel budget, or family planning… being able to even think about these things is new and should be exciting! There is no reason to be stuck in the “immigrant” mindset. It will not serve you the way it served your parents. There is opportunity to start anew, start early and map out your financial future. In doing so you will set yourself up to be financially independent and live your own “First Generation American” dream.