Asian frugality (and “cheap Asian parents”)

by doorhalfopen

I took my mom and brother out to dinner recently , and because I was paying I told them to order whatever they wanted. The meal ended up being pretty expensive, but we were happy. This got me thinking. Our family doesn’t do something like this very often. We’re not extremely wealthy, but we are not poor either. Yet every time we eat out our whole family is very conscious of the price. We never glance at the most expensive parts of the menu. As a result, we generally order the same thing every time we go out. If we grab Italian food, it’s the medium-priced pasta. At a Japanese restaurant, it’s the chirashi or sashimi combo. We seldom ate like we did tonight.

As a kid the first time I was aware of Asian stereotypes (other than ‘ching chang chong’) was the frugality that Asian families seemed to have compared to, say, Caucasian families. My own family didn’t go on very many vacations. I had relatively few toys; it took a couple years of good grades and begging to finally own a Nintendo 64 in middle school. I always trusted my parents’ decisions, but often felt like I was missing out on a lot of things that other kids were experiencing. Of course, not all Asian families I interacted with were this way, but big spending families were generally not viewed in a positive light as far as I know.

Now that I’m grown up and entering the ‘real world’, I can see why the Asian parents I observed were so hesitant when it came to spending money. According to the authors of The Millionaire Next Door, Stanley and Danko, the wealthiest people in America tend to also be the most frugal. Wealth, after all, is measured by what you have saved up rather than what you earn. Another interesting finding was that first-generation immigrants were more likely to be millionaires. A lot of this had to do with their spending habits. The offspring of these immigrants become more ‘Americanized’ in their spending habits, and the rate of wealth accumulation goes down.

Over time I’ve noticed a lot of empirical evidence in my own life that support this conclusion.  One example is what happened tonight. Sure, I only went all-out because we rarely get the opportunity to spend so much on dinner, however I can see myself getting used to it. What if I start eating like this once a month? Once a week? Sooner or later I might think saving money on meals is too trivial for me to worry about. This logic is a bit of a slippery slope, but I feel like it is very real.

What I’ve come to realize is this. We are benefiting from the wealth our parents created, often from scratch, and have different priorities in life. I was once dissatisfied–ashamed even–of the ‘cheap Asian parents’ stereotype. My peers were as well. As a result, some of them now do the very opposite: lavish spending that is most likely beyond their means (which, by the way, is a good example of this). I now understand that there isn’t really a better or worse way to live. It just all depends on our priorities.

If you are a second-generation immigrant (or 1.5 generation like me), then chances are that your parents came to the US for a brighter, wealthier future. A big part of that was to save up enough money for their own retirement and perhaps leave an inheritance for the first time in family history. That is nothing to be ashamed of.

I still think my parents should learn to relax once in a while and spend like we did at the dinner, but now I understand why they try to keep it to a minimum.