living with money

I’m Not Saving 90 Percent of My Income for Myself

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

I currently save 90 percent of my income. It’s extreme, I know. A lot of people are like, “Oh, you must be planning to retire early, right?” And I’m like, “No!” Retiring sounds nice, don’t get me wrong. But my parents did not immigrate here and work their asses off for 20 years so I could retire in my 30s. I’m here to work, to change the future of my family, and to make life better for my own kids eventually too.

I was born in southern China in what was then a small fishing village. Everyone lived in wooden shacks with tarps. A few months after we left, the government tore it down to build what’s now a third-tier city. My dad’s sister immigrated to San Francisco and she helped us come over when I was 9. When we arrived, it was my first time in a car. I couldn’t believe how neat all the houses were, in rows like that. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

When we first got to San Francisco, our financial situation was awful. We lived in my aunt’s basement and her son, my cousin, told everyone at school about it. He said, “My cousin sleeps where my dog sleeps.” The pain of that, even now that I’m financially secure — it will always stay there.

My parents were always taking whatever jobs they could. At first, my dad worked in the meat section of a grocery store. Then he worked as a baker-slash-janitor. My mom still works as a caretaker for an elderly woman. After a little while, they saved up enough money to rent our own flat. We found our mattresses on the street and put them on the floor and slept like that, in the same room, for years.

It wasn’t until college that I realized how different other people’s lives were. I went to a private school in southern California because they gave me the best funding. There were a lot of legacy kids there. There were also a lot of second-generation Asian Americans who, because of their successful parents, could afford to go to a private college without taking out loans. I was impressed by that. It made me want to make sure my children get to have everything they need. A lot of Chinese people know this: It takes more than one generation to build stability. It takes multiple generations stacked on each other.

I made a decision that I would not repeat the cycle of poverty. I know there’s a general stereotype that Asian Americans tend to do well, but I know plenty who don’t. There are immigrants who have just arrived and are poor, and immigrants who have been here for a while and are still poor, and immigrants who have worked their way up.

By the end of junior year in college, I started worrying about what I was going to do after I graduated. I studied psychology, neurology, and child development, and I wanted to get a Ph.D., but then I realized that there was no way I could afford to do that. I mean, I could live off a stipend no problem, but my parents were getting into their 60s and I knew I’d need to support them. They don’t own property, so if they can’t afford rent, they’re out. So I realized a Ph.D. was not an option, and I decided to go straight to work.

I graduated with $20,000 in debt, and I did two and a half jobs to pay it off. I was a content writer during the day and a bar hostess at night, and when I was commuting I answered surveys for a dollar each on my phone. I also did TaskRabbit gigs when I could. I made about $40,000 a year between those jobs, and I lived with my parents so that I could put every cent toward my loans. I was able to pay off that $20,000 in eight months.

Right now, I work for myself. I am inside of my computer for several hours a day, running two website businesses and trying to start a third. I also run a doggy daycare and our AirBnb. Last year, I made close to $70,000–80,000. My husband works in tech, so he makes good money, but I don’t touch it. It’s stubborn of me, but I want to make sure that we can live on one income, and that income is mine. We save almost everything he brings in, and we’ve gotten really lucky with investments, so now we have about $1.7 million.

We live in Seattle and budget-wise, we spend about $1,000 a month between three people — my dad lives with us. We don’t have a car. We rent out the other bedrooms in our home, which covers more than our mortgage payments. My husband and I live in our bedroom — my desk is in here, and so is our dining table. The other three bedrooms are rented out on AirBnb and my dad lives downstairs. I’m used to living like this. I grew up in one bedroom, and I’m still living in one bedroom 20 years later. This is the baseline of comfort. I know that most people wouldn’t want to eat, work, and sleep in the same room, but I’m like, why not? This is normal to me.

My husband and I never really discussed the fact that I’d be supporting my parents. It was just a given. I never hid anything. I was open about the fact that my parents had no money. They speak second-grade-level English. I’m their only child. I need to take care of them. It’s nonnegotiable.

We’ve been married for three years now, and he’s really perfect for me. If I’m happy, he’s happy. He doesn’t mind the way I want to live — he just goes along with it. He understands the struggles that my family has been through, even though he can’t relate to them personally. His own parents have saved enough for their own retirement, and he had an all-American childhood — karate lessons, camp, nice schools. I like to live vicariously through it. I tell him to share stories with me about his childhood, so that I can imagine I was there. Like the time he did a front flip off the kitchen table and broke his leg. I love that. I couldn’t break my leg as a kid — if I did, I wouldn’t have been able to go to the hospital or anything. Oh, and the Christmases. A Christmas tree! I never had a Christmas until I met him, and that first Christmas was so special for me. For them, it was routine. I was like, “This is so cool!”

I once had a conversation with my husband about how if I died, he’d have to keep taking care of my parents. It’s a dark topic, I know, and he wasn’t thrilled about the idea. But he wouldn’t kick them out. They’d have nowhere to go. And supporting my parents is not that hard. They have Medicare and Social Security, and they’re so frugal that they don’t need much.

My dad is now retired, and when my mom retires she’ll move in with us too. The plan is to give them this house eventually, and get our own nearby. Living with them is not ideal. They’re from a completely different generation, and they’re not Americanized. They have very different belief systems. Like, they don’t believe in antibiotics or certain types of medicine. They aren’t tolerant of certain other ways of life. It’s difficult sometimes. They’re not the kind of parents that you want to hang out with and have them help raise your kids. We argue a lot about how to do things.

There’s this perception that taking care of your parents is just an immigrant thing, but I think that’ll change soon. A lot of aging Americans are not financially stable, and they’ll have to depend on their kids — my peers. But still, no one talks about it. It’s like being on the Titanic — shouldn’t we be discussing this huge iceberg ahead of us?

Lily runs two websites, The Frugal Gene and Merry for Money.

I’m Not Saving 90 Percent of My Income for Myself