3 Financial Struggles I Faced as a First-Generation American

american flag with fireworks in background for celebrating
Nick Jene/Alamy
This holiday weekend will be my 28th year celebrating our country's success at achieving independence. My family migrated to the States in the 1980s, but I'm a first-generation Filipino-American, born and raised here.

In school, I was taught about the rights and freedoms that were proclaimed on that first Independence Day, but I had to learn the importance of other freedoms -- like financial freedom -- on my own. And the financial advice I got from my native Filipino relatives didn't really fill in the gaps for me.

Considering that there are currently more than 19 million first-generation Americans, according to a 2013 Pew Research study, I'm not alone in having to navigate the financial challenges of being sandwiched between two cultures. Here are three that were especially tough for me to overcome as the first U.S.-born member of my family.

1. Finding Cash for College

My parents and family insisted on me getting an good education. Throughout my childhood, I was told that a college degree -- specifically one that would lead me to a career in medicine or law -- would be my gateway to a successful life. As a kid, I bought into that notion, and had aspirations to become a pediatrician, but at 10 years old, I didn't fully understand the financial implications of that educational path.

I didn't have a 529 savings plan to fund my tuition. And while my parents worked hard to ensure I grew up in a healthy, safe environment, they didn't have the resources to support me during college. Nor did they know the ins-and-outs of where to find financial aid.

I recall sitting at the dining table at 1 a.m. on a school night during my last semester of high school, trying to complete my Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Since my parents had no experience in the process, I singlehandedly reviewed my parents' income tax returns, calculated assets and muddled through the night with my face buried in paperwork.

2. Navigating the Contradictions of the American Dream

Growing up, I heard stories from my grandparents, aunts and uncles about how hard life was back in their native country, and how some people there assumed that anyone in the U.S. had the means to buy luxury cars and lavish homes. My first experience visiting the Philippines confirmed the prevalence of this idealized notion of the American lifestyle.

At the time, I was a part-time college student making $10 an hour. My budget was so tight that I could only afford to bring $50 as spending money for the entire trip. Nonetheless, a distant relative literally put her hand out asking for a monetary gift upon meeting me for the first time.

She knew I was a student and didn't have a full-time job, but what she didn't know was that I was $25,000 deep in student loan debt, had $2,000 in credit card debt and couldn't even afford to buy a beater car to get around. It was at that moment that I learned how disconnected the foreign perception of the American dream can be to the cost-of-living realities Americans face daily.

3. Learning by Trial and Error

The financial advice my parents were firmest about was to avoid credit cards, because they'd had to file for bankruptcy. It was the most significant personal experience they had to offer about money management.

Unfortunately, in my house, discussions about money were very polarized -- either I should behave one way, or shouldn't -- but there was no conversation about how to improve upon my parents' experiences. So there were no talks about the pros and cons of credit card use, or how to be responsible with debt, or even what it meant to have a line of credit. All of those lessons, I had to pick up along the way, without my family's help.

Juanita Rodriguez of Los Angeles can also relate to the challenges of being a first-generation American. Her father emigrated from Mexico when he was 5 years old, and her mother came to the U.S. at 21 with a deeply ingrained Salvadoran culture to lean on. Raised at the intersection of three cultures, she found that she often had no other option but to guess almost blindly when facing common American financial dilemmas.

"I think the biggest obstacle [first-generation Americans] face is the 'unknown,' the 'never experienced,'" Rodriguez said. "In a way, we are an extension of our parents' immigration to this wonderful country, just finding our way through trial and error. This makes our path blurry and difficult, but it reminds us of our parents' desire to never give up and look towards that brighter future."

Jennifer Calonia is the editorial manager for GOBankingRates.com, a national personal finance site that connects consumers with the best banks, credit unions, interest rates and personal finance information today. Follow her on Twitter @Go_Jenn.

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July 13 2014 at 1:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Congratulations, and welcome to America to all of your folks. Things can be tough here, but too many of us are disconnected from how hard life can be in the outside world. Still, most of us continue to endeavor, largely in he interest of our children. May yours live a good life, and know the satisfaction of hard work and the success it can bring not only for themselves, but for all Americans with the will to succeed.
God Bless.

July 07 2014 at 8:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My ancestor came here speaking English, about 366 years ago.

July 06 2014 at 10:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I can honestly say I believe one undocumented alien in this nation is preferable to ten korrectionelecshuns.

July 06 2014 at 8:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to h.ecdag's comment

Were the aliens aboard the hyjacked airliners on 9/11/2001, worth the lives of the passengers and crews, plus all the other innocent people killed or injured?

July 06 2014 at 11:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

deport all illegal immigrants ovomit let "BREAK' INTO AMERICA cause it is not the responsibility of the American tax payers to support these disease ridden illegal immigrant aliens ,then remove ovomit from our white house in handcuffs in 2014 n deport him also.

July 06 2014 at 8:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to korrectionelecshun's comment

You really are an embarrassment to the United States of America.

Wouldn't hurt my feelings any if YOU left too.

July 06 2014 at 8:42 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to h.ecdag's comment

I'm quite familiar with that A-hole Dinesh D'Souza.


July 06 2014 at 8:46 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down

Wow, try being an immigrant with a stipulation that you must get a four year degree in order to stay legally. Problem solved. Do four years of military time. serve your newly adopted country and have the VA pay for it. Not a bad ride!

July 06 2014 at 6:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to wolfkulp's comment

these are NOT immigrants ....they are "ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS" they broke the law, n must be deported nowwwwwwww along with their Ebola n mersa diseases.

July 06 2014 at 8:29 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

It is unfortunate that financial ignorance does not distinguish a generation from another.

July 06 2014 at 2:12 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

My parents came here speaking only Spanish. Yet they knew you paid for what you bought and if you did not have the money you did not buy it. They retired debtless and with no mortgage. My Dad was a janitor and my Mom a housewife. The helped a little while I worked my way through UCLA. I graduated without any debt. In fact I did not know about college loans when attending in the 1960's. If you and spouse are savers you will do well. If you are spenders you will end up broke and in debt.

July 05 2014 at 6:15 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to elaineen's comment

Janitor or a member of a cleaning service whom is paid in cash because they don't have a Social Security # ?

July 06 2014 at 11:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Iselin007's comment

My father was a janitor for the U.S. Post Office (as it was called then).

July 08 2014 at 12:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

FYI I was going to pay my friends $20 an hr to clean my house, but they refused.

September 19 2014 at 12:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

At least her dad was willing to work. I wonder how many silver-spooned, financially-fed courtesy-of-mommy-and-daddy millennials would actually take a job like that? I have more respect for her father than for anyone who was handed everything on a silver platter. Hard work gains my respect. This give-me-everything-on-a-silver-platter attitude makes me wonder just how dysfunctional some young adults have become. Some young adults these days actually think mommy and daddy are just going to drop a few thousand in their bank account so they don't have to feel any discomfort whatsoever. (I read one of the most recent articles on here on how mommy and daddy did that for their adult 20-something daughter. I hate to break the news to all the give-me adults out there, but you should try getting off your butt for a change, and doing a job like Elaineen's dad. It's probably beneath them to do that. Funny, I have friends still living at home who are in their 50s. They were complaining about money problems. So I told them I've give them a job as my housekeeper. All they had to do was clean my house, especially my bathroom tub and use bleach. They didn't want the job because they didn't want to clean the tub with bleach. They could have worn a mask and goggles that I would have provided. That's what I use. But it was beneath them to take that job. So they're off to the food pantry instead, to get free food. Nice life, huh?

September 19 2014 at 12:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"Knowledge is Power" is even more true today. That's why Financial Education is not taught to our poorest members of society. Every youth struggling with student debt or every homeowner drawing down their equity means some one else getting richer. Where I live the school system is bankrupt, yet they want to waste money giving the poor lap tops. Most will be lost/stolen/broken and the kids no better off. If some of that money were spent on educating them on proper use of credit, investments as long term savings, or benefits delayed gratification, they would be better able to improve their lives, but "powers that be" would not get richer.

July 05 2014 at 2:06 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Being independent goes a long way to save you money. Cook your own meals, ride a bike instead of buying gas, make you own repairs and upgrades, etc.
If you read the Proverbs section of the Bible and do everything it says, you wont have money problems. I promise.

July 05 2014 at 7:29 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply