My money story on NPR: Chinese family vs. personal happiness

betty ming liu Money 21 Comments

As a huge fan of National Public Radio, I’m THRILLED to be featured on Marketplace. The NPR show, which is about personal finance and business, wanted to know how my immigrant parents impacted my money values.

This is one of my favorite topics. How we handle our finances is so revealing! Follow the money trail and you can decode the story of my life.

There were early phases when I spent a fortune on designer clothes, fancy jewelry, hot cars. I also had an austerity stage of paying off credit card debt. After that, I went on a self-improvement binge that led to buying stacks of how-to books on

For a while, I felt guilty about spending money on art classes and oil paints. Who was I to think I could be an artist? But now, I’m like, whatever. These dollars are mine, all mine. I’m managing my bills and investments. I deserve to pursue my passions and have fun.

My control-freak parents raised me on their tales of poverty and hunger. Don’t waste food! Save money! Growing up in Chinatown, we hoarded every rubber band and scrap paper that came through our apartment door. At least, that’s what it felt and looked like.

On the bright side, that was the beginning of my passion for recycling. And yes, I still save rubberbands and scrap paper! Mom and Dad were tough. But they left me with many great lessons…

If you have three minutes and three seconds, I hope you’ll check out the segment. The producer, Jenny Ament, knows how to conduct an interview. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with her. Thank you NPR and Jenny!

Click to listen: NPR Marketplace: My money story: when family values battle happiness.

By the way, images reveal a lot too. Here are some pictures of what it was like to grow up with my parents. :)

betty collageHow about you? What’s your money story?



Comments 21

  1. My parents sound a lot like yours. They were immigrants from the Caribbean. They were picking classes and majors too. Biggest money lesson I got from them was to get an education and to secure my housing (own).

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      Ann, I got the same lessons about education and housing. I still value both lessons. Although, the 21st century requires tweaking of those values. During the recession, household net worth for families of color collapses, losing 59% to 61% of their value. By comparison for white families, their median net worth declined by 24%. Here’s more info on one of my earlier blog posts:

      Talking to the experts, the problem for Asian families, at least, was that so much of their net worth was tied up in home ownership. When the housing market crashes, so did their assets.

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  2. My parents divorced when I was about 7, so I learned more about money from my Mom. We saved, we bought things on sale, but she also put herself through night school to take the leap from being a school secretary to becoming a high school teacher and dean. But even though she was frugal, my Mom, thankfully, also believed in the occasional splurge, and she also believed in having fun, even on a budget. The strongest thing I learned about money from her, is that women must learn how to make their own! Men and marriage were a possibility, but the underlying advice she gave me was not to ever become too dependent on a man – you never could be sure when the other show might drop! God loves the child who makes his own. She was a strong supporter of finding ways to improve your own future, and not waiting for someone to do that for you.

    1. Leslie, my mother raised me much the same way. My father, who died 10/23/13, was a wonderful man, but he did have his faults. He was not good with money, although he never really made enough. He was a college professor in Education and we all know that anyone in education, including those who train teachers as my dad did, are underpaid. My mom knew what was going on and wanted me to be self-supporting and resourceful and independent and not to depend on anyone else. I am proud to say I have learned those lessons. I just downsized to a studio apt to save money and did all the moving on my own, and am now cleaning out two storage units (nearly done) and moving heavy stuff around by myself. I think your mom and mine were cut from the same cloth. I have many friends who thought they hit the jackpot when they got married, only to find that everything fell apart when they got divorced and they were left with nothing. I only want to be able to depend on myself, set my own rules and live by my own values.

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      Samantha, congrats on your new apartment! I’m a great believer in downsizing as the new getting ahead. Congrats also, for being self-reliant.

      Leslie, sounds like your mom trained you well. It took me a long time to learn your mom’s lesson. My mom believed that a woman should prove that she was “as good as a man.” Yuck. But even if she met that standard, she still had to bow to a man, or, as she said, “let him be a man.” More yuck.

  3. Great anecdote Betty. As a fellow second generation NYer, I can relate and am grateful for the ways that my parents taught me the value of a dollar and at the same time took a chance on giving me the space to explore my passion.

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  4. yay, betty, live, on npr!!! you are not only a survivor but a thriver! … my grandparents were incredibly frugal & as a backlash, my mom was rather, imo, a spendthrift. i have always felt terrible about the waste of money & other things — the clothes that never get worn, the packaging that ends up as landfill. & now, as i am trying to cobble together a life that doesn’t involve being a slave to making money i have been going back to my roots, bringing hyper consciousness to how i spend my money, what value i get from that energetic exchange, & the environmental repercussions. it has radically shifted my relationship with money & it makes me very glad. i only wish i’d been so aware earlier — i could have millions in the bank now!

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    Good for you, Jaimie! I go back and forth about money. Part of me feels I really need to make more money. Preparing for retirement, more financial freedom, etc etc. But part of me feels I have so much already, and that I spend way too much. But sounds like you’re really clear. That must feel great! Here’s to a spring of happy cleaning, with new ways to save. :)

  6. Betty: How marvelous to be on NPR – my favorite network. My car and kitchen radios are permanently set to NPR. As for a money story, mine would be the absence of one. In the world of the WASP gentry, two things are never but NEVER discussed; money and sex. Of those two, one MIGHT with intimates, whisper allusions to some secret sex scandal committed by persons “who should know better.” One possibly might transgress that far – but money? Oh no! Never a word. It absolutely did not arise. It was simply there when needed. I never had the slightest idea of how much money my father had. This does not imply a profligate style of life. That too would be very un-WASP. For one thing it would be “show-off,” or worse “nouveau riche,” (just nouveau for short – a kiss of death) On the one hand, I think this sort of atmosphere in childhood bred a sense of security and worked against avarice. On the other hand there were practical deficiencies. After my father died, I found my mother had no idea how to write a check or pay a bill. Not a clue.

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      But Toby, what you describe IS your money story. Are you familiar with the artist’s concept of “negative space?” Let’s say I want to paint a vase. I can paint the object — the vase. Or, I can shape the vase by painting the space all around it. By defining the space, I shape the vase.

      You learned about money in a negative space. I got a lot of that too and relate to everything about the WASP lifestyle — it sounds to Chinese to me! The only difference is, my parents talked about money all the time.

  7. PS: Mother was astonished to find that the electricity and the water had to be paid for. She considered that quite as much of an imposition as if she had to pay for the air we breath.

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  8. Betty: I really enjoyed your commentary on NPR’s Marketplace, on their Sunday edition. The discussion on happiness is actually a very relevant one, and one that I think deserves great consideration. I was raised by a German-American mother, and the values are different than the ones you described. But I think you have a lot of gifts that may have been blessings in disguise. My own thinking these days, particularly reading Viktor Frankly, is that its from the hardest experiences we can learn the most. Hope to hear your voice again.

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    Rudy, thank you for dropping by! Yeah, agreed — the rough spots are the ones that round out who we are. I’m totally okay with that because along the way, I’ve managed to get what I need. Blessings in disguise is the way to go….good words for the start of a Monday morning work week. And hope to hear from you again too.

  10. Betty! I first want to say how great it was to hear your voice in the interview. Your voice is great on-air!

    Whenever you discuss your stories about your parents, I learn so much! I find some universal experiences between us and gain some closer perspective on your own personal experiences.

    When you mentioned being encouraged to be responsible instead of being happy, I think many children of immigrants can relate. I know I can.

    Have I told you of my mother sending me to the bank in the 1980’s? Instead of a paper bag, she used a large white envelope.

    Thanks for giving me an opportunity to think about the responsible lessons I’ve learned from my mother and to examine my own relationship to money.

    Great stuff!

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      Skye, these issues relating to parents are such universal issues. Thanks for adding your thoughts. I’m glad you could relate. That’s interesting about the white envelope your mom used in the ’80s. Compare that to my dad’s brown paper bag of the ’70s. I bet we could have a whole cultural/sociological discussion on how use of paper varies by generation and gender!

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