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3 Financial Struggles I Faced as a First-Generation American


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american flag with fireworks in background for celebrating
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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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