I recently googled how much residencies pay residents, and while I knew the range was 40-60K a year for working 80+hrs a week, I was still shocked that most of the residencies I searched paid only $40k. I told this to my dad, who brought me down to earth by telling me that’s more than he earned when he was getting his second Ph.D. in America, while supporting my mom getting her master’s degree, and me as a kid. Not to mention, I’d surely be earning more after residency. Let’s take a trip down memory lane of how I grew up…
I was born in China, and lived with my parents in an apartment (like most people in a city). Then, my parents decided to move to America. They used savings and borrowed money from family and friends for the move, and off we went! We lived in the university’s graduate apartment housing complex, which I loved. There were tons of other kids to play with, had 4 playgrounds (!!!!), and lots of nature to explore. I knew we couldn’t afford things other people could, but I was fine with it. I got free lunch at school (which I was shocked was even a thing)! We didn’t have a car, so we’d rely on friends, the bus, or biking/walking home for groceries. My parents never bought anything we didn’t need, which meant I never got chips or cookies or candy 🙁 🙁 :(. Besides wanting junk food, I also wanted toys: dolls, stuffed animals, etc. Beanie babies were huge then, and I so so so wanted one!! But of course I couldn’t get one. The good thing about being a kid is that you can do trades. So I’d do all sorts of trades with other kids, trying to upgrade and expand my collection of goodies. Some of my friends who had lots of toys even gave me some of their beanie babies!
Anything extra wasn’t a thing – of course not. We NEVER ate out (even McDonald’s, because it was “too pricey” – it wasn’t until later that I even realized people thought McD was cheap). The key was to save as much money as possible, so we could pay back our debts, and try that upward mobility thing. We did a lot of barbeques with friends, went camping and hiking. You know, things that are free. When I heard classmates went to Disney (GASP!!!!), I was SO JEALOUS. These were places I knew I would never be able to go to. I don’t remember being bullied for having less than others – I think it was a combination of the fact that my school was very good about anti-bullying, plus being in a small midwestern city which had a more casual/less-pretentious attitude about money. (Or perhaps it happened, and I was ignorant to it…) The cool thing about not having money is knowing that friends truly like you for your personality. I really wanted to go to a local summer camp with my best friend, but my parents couldn’t afford that camp (which happened a lot, and I didn’t even mind). I told my friend, and she said her mom would cover my fees! The other thing to note is that even though my parents never spent money on the non-essentials, they saw education as an essential. I went to a local school’s (very affordable) summer camp for photography, chess, writing, website design; I had weekly art and Chinese school lessons. I did gymnastics, ice skating, tennis, and swim lessons. (I should also note that these things were much, much cheaper there than in Florida.)
After my parents finished schooling in the midwest, my dad got a job in Florida!! We were so excited!! Finally moving up in this new world. We moved to Florida, and I immediately hated it. Even though my dad was now making money, everything was more expensive in Florida, so ironically, we were relatively poorer. Tennis lessons were hundreds of dollars instead of $30. All my lessons stopped. I was bored and miserable.
We moved apartments a couple times, and I really thought we would just live in apartments forever since it was all I’d ever known. When we visited friends’ who had houses, I remember staring at their huge 2-story house and wonder what it was like to LIVE in that… All that open space! I’d only lived in 2 bedroom 1 bath apartments, so it was hard to imagine having all that space.
Late in high school, the housing bubble popped. My parents were talking about getting a house. I was like “WHAT?! We’re not going to rent anymore??” One day, they informed me that they’d bought a house. A 2-story house that was BIG. I was SHOCKED. They didn’t consult me for this major decision?? They usually asked for my opinion before making decisions… But they were both in agreement. The price was similar to that of much smaller houses, and they anticipated the value to go up a lot, so it made sense from an investment standpoint. I was against it. Could we even afford this? Why don’t we just keep renting? Shouldn’t we be conservative with our spending?
It was around this time that I realized we HAD in fact, shifted up in the socioeconomic scale. I didn’t get free lunch at school anymore. We got a Costco membership, and we would occasionally get pizza from Costco. We would eat out a couple times a year (which, was in STARK contrast to literally NEVER eating out previously – like I didn’t even understand how restaurants worked).
Now that I’m in medical school, I’m taking out tons of loans. But my idea of money is 180 degrees shifted from how I grew up. My mom and I used to do tons of DIY crafts of things we couldn’t afford, and now I just buy that shit. It’s not like we’re rich by any means of the imagination, but we have a LOT more compared to how much we had when I was growing up, and I think I struggle to find the balance. I know I over-spend my budget. It’s interesting to see people’s relationships with money. You really can’t predict how someone grew up based on their relationship with money is. The large perception is that those who spend money more freely grew up with more money – but I don’t think that’s very accurate. Some of the cheapest people I know grew up with millions. Likewise, some of my friends spend money on unnecessary things that they can’t afford, going into major credit card debt. Perhaps that makes sense – those with more money got there by smart spending, and those who didn’t grow up with any have no knowledge of personal finance. I fall more into the latter – except of course I assume that I will be able to pay off my debt in the long-term, so I justify it to myself. I am worried about my spending. I definitely have adopted the more “American” way of spending – if I have money, it’s to spend. The Chinese way, as is most other cultures I think, is to save your money for a rainy day. Even those who are dirt poor have saved up as much as they can, which is the essence of traditional Chinese values. (I read a New Yorker article on a Chinese loaner company in NYC and it taught me a lot.) And probably lots of other cultures, too. (My German friend told me in their culture, they save up half their money to give to their children.)
Ugh, I know I’m such a consumer. I love buying shit. Does it bring me happiness? Momentarily. Am I any happier now than when I couldn’t have any of this? No. Am I less happy? Also no. I think baseline happiness levels don’t have to do with your finances, as long as you have the essentials of a home, food, and love. Oh you know what else is interesting? When people say buying experiences is richer than buying things. You know that someone with money came up with that shit, because when you can’t afford things, you want to have concrete things that you can hold onto. I’ve always thought that quote was quite classist.