Seng Xiong grew up in Laos. Like many Hmong in Laos, his parents were nomadic farmers. Their only bills were to purchase food or clothing, and they paid for these goods with cash or traded goods for them. Seng watched his parents keep their money safe by storing it in silver bars under their mattress. They took this money out only to pay the bride price when he married Bao.
Seng and Bao expected to be farmers as well, but they became increasingly threatened by persecution from the Lao government. Their focus was on day-to-day survival, never on saving for the future. Ultimately, they decided to flee to a refugee camp in Thailand. While there, they were not allowed to hold formal employment, but they volunteered to work in exchange for food and small goods. Seng and Bao had three children while in the refugee camp, and they hoped for a better life for these children. They decided to move to the United States.
When they arrived in the United States, Seng and Bao had only limited English skills. Bao was able to get work as a personal care attendant, and Seng began working in a meat packing factory. Each job paid very little. It was very important to Seng and Bao to save for their children’s future and also to send money to their brothers and sisters still in the refugee camps. Their sponsor found them a small, two-bedroom apartment, and they furnished it with used beds, two couches, a table, and a TV. Neither job provided any health care benefits. When anyone in the family was injured or sick, Seng and Bao would talk with the elders in their community and treat the illness as best they could on their own.
They purchased only necessities, and set aside all other money under their mattress or shipped it to their families in Laos. Neither Seng nor Bao had any experience tracking money or budgeting for things in the future; they simply spent little and tried to save or share the rest. They both distrusted banks, and preferred to use cash for all exchanges.
As their children got older, they wanted to buy more entertainment items. It was difficult for Seng and Bao to decide what items to purchase for their children, wanting them to have a good life, and which items to say no to. Their oldest daughter started talking to them about building credit, but this seemed like a very risky situation. Bao had a friend whose identity had been stolen when she started a bank account, and Bao and Seng knew that when you borrow money from the bank, you have to pay back some interest. They knew they could borrow money from another sibling in the United States if they needed to, and having any kind of credit card or loan seemed unnecessary.
- Think back on your own family history. What did you learn from your parents about banking, saving, credit, and financial obligations to family? How might that have been influenced by your cultural background?
- What barriers do immigrants frequently face to economic well-being?
- How might not having healthcare impact the well-being of an immigrant family? What about healthcare in another language?
- How might Seng and Bao’s financial background impact their children’s choices, particularly as their children become adults and consider college and other savings goals?
Learning the Language of Money
- This resource from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development provides the MoneySmart curriculum through the cultural perspective of Hmong, Latino/a, and Somali people. It describes the historical and cultural influences on money management and gives tips for financial educators working with these populations.