Life Lessons from Refugee Parents

6 min readMar 5, 2022

How many of you have an account with National Mattress Bank? You might want to make a withdrawal soon.

Photo by Andreea Popa on Unsplash

First off, sorry for the terrible name for a made-up bank.

Secondly, my parents never did this or taught us to do so, but it’s such a common narrative that I have to touch on it. Hiding money under your mattress is a very relatable story amongst people who weren’t born into wealth or even the middle class. Why? Because this was the safest place for our parents or grandparents, many of whom may not trust the government or other institutions of power given their past experiences with corrupt officials or war that resulted in them losing their homeland.

Given all of that, it’s just a smidge understandable if this was your first lesson in money management. Unfortunately, it’s a very poor method given the likely-connected-or-highly-coincidental stories of robberies that happen to these individuals. So, before you read on further, if your money is under your mattress…please seek out other options.

What my parents did teach me were the lessons that helped them get to where they wanted to be. Learnings that helped them take a family of six from a two bedroom apartment to a three bedroom house all the way to owning their own home and a plot of land.

Get A Job

“Get a job so you’ll have your own money to spend.”

Usually, the first lesson any children of refugee parents tend to learn is to find a job so you can support your family or yourself. It’s not a difficult lesson, but it does have its faults.

While “get a job” was a great goal for our parents and grandparents, many of whom came from a life where jobs were not plentiful and they typically spent their days out on the fields, it’s not one that can push us to the next level. Not in its current state, at least.

Instead, we as the next generation need to adapt and redefine that lesson. A job that simply pays cannot be our end goal. I’ll admit that growing up, my only goal was to make money. Then, it was to make more money. Then, it was to make even more money.

As I grew older, that changed. My priorities changed and my goals changed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still looking for a job that pays me and pays me well. However, there are now amendments to that goal. I started including more and more into my goal, not out of a desire for “more” but a desire to create the life I want for myself and my family. These included major changes such as making more money to things like being able to clock out on time.

Eventually, my parents’ lesson of “get a job” evolved to “get a job with an amazing compensation package that includes a six-figure annual salary, great benefits, great work-life balance, great people, and RSUs.”

Easy, right?

Don’t Spend Money

“Save your money. Don’t spend it so much so you’ll have money when you need it.”

Not spending your money should ensure that you’ll have tons of money for when you really do need it, right? So, why does it sometimes feel like you can never get ahead?

I’ll be forever grateful for the sacrifices that my parents put in and commitment to their goals. They were able to take a family of six from a two bedroom apartment to a three bedroom house all the way to owning their own home and a plot of land.

Yet, while their money management lessons were useful when I was growing up, they eventually ran their course and needed an update. Simply saving was just not enough, because it left me with so many unanswered questions and ultimately, with no real goal. What was I saving for? When do I really need it? When will enough be enough? If I never spend my money, how do I give myself and my family a better life?

Like many other lessons, this one also went through multiple changes. First, evolving to save a certain amount so I could travel or purchase a laptop or eat out with friends. Then, I redefined the lesson my parents taught me to go beyond simply not spending my money. Instead I made exceptions for my spending to ensure anything I spent my money on would improve my current situation or that of my family.

My parents’ lesson of “don’t spend your money” has evolved (and continues to do so) to “don’t spend your money on things that don’t bring joy to you. Instead, spend your money on improving yourself and your current situation.”

Get Life Insurance

“Get life insurance. It’s the only way to get ahead in this life.”

I’m sure this lesson is not uncommon. Growing up in our community or ones like it, there’s a common narrative that in order to get ahead, you need a large lump sum of money. This was usually the direct result of a lottery win (ha!), gambling wins (ha-ha!), or life insurance. While life insurance has its place and can be the defining factor for you and your family during tough times, letting it be the only way to get ahead is only inviting future disaster.

I’m a firm believer in not putting all my eggs in one basket. There is so much uncertainty in life that I cannot comfortably believe having life insurance alone will solve all my problems, nor do I believe that not investing in life insurance for my loved ones will ensure I can insure my finances another way for that day.

I want to keep this section short, so I’ll just get to the point. I believe life insurance has a place and, provided your finances can support the payments, believe that you should do all you can to protect your family from any future disasters. That said, I’ll continue to make sure this lesson isn’t the only tool that pushes me towards my goals.

What About Health Insurance?


Remember my parents’ goal to get a job? Well, that goal never included conversations around health benefits…or any benefits outside of a paycheck for that matter. In fact, despite having lived with asthma since I can remember, health benefits were never a priority simply because I didn’t know anything about health benefits.

I mean, sure, I went to my check-ups, my teeth cleaning, got my vaccinations, and all that. However, I was pretty sheltered because I didn’t really deal with any of this until much later in life.

My first real run-in with health benefits was years after college when I finally landed a job that included benefits. I don’t remember the details of the plan we were offered, but I remember being way in over my head. Things like “premiums” and “deductibles” were completely foreign to me. Even working with HR and going through the definitions left me feeling pretty confused.

Still, I powered through, made mistakes, and learned. Thinking back on it now, these conversations most likely didn’t exist with my parents because they too were figuring out what the hell it all meant.

With the cost of health care these days, I cannot stress the importance of health benefits when you’re searching for a new job. No matter where you are in life, life happens. You’ll need health insurance to make sure you and your family are covered.

So, What Was This All About?

If you’ve read this far, thanks! I really appreciate your support! But what was all this about?

As I get older, I also get better at reflecting on the decisions and actions I’ve made throughout the years. One thing that I can reliably say is that I’ve gotten much better at adapting my goals and pushing myself further.

Adapting is critical because the problems that our generation are facing are different from the ones our parents faced. While life lessons passed on and goals set by our parents are great starting points, eventually you need to redefine these goals (or drop them completely for your own), increase your knowledge, and build on the foundation your parents laid.

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Sporadic writer writing about my interests, hobbies, aspirations, and random learnings.