Immigrant’s Guide to The American Dream

As proud immigrants to America in the early 1900s, my parents worked hard and saved to secure a piece of The American Dream.


My parents raised their three American-born children with sound money management principles – the same ones that helped us secure a piece of The American Dream.

Their teachings required discipline and included tracking where every penny went. In hard times, we were able to cut back and have enough for necessities. They even managed to get through my father’s layoff as a machinist at General Electric and still keep food on the table and the bills paid.

My parents were too proud to accept assistance. After they survived the Armenian Genocide, they met and married in America. They had children later in life. I was born when my father was forty-nine and my mother was thirty-nine.

To survive we cut back…a lot! The frugal steps they took were hard on us kids (and would make for compelling material), but we emerged with the tools to survive these challenges.


While my parents served as conservative role models, my husband’s parents forgot to sew the holes in their pockets. Money flowed through their fingers like a stream and when they ran out before the next paycheck, they called us and their two other sons. As my husband and his two brothers grew older, they adopted more conservative practices. I often credit their success to the influence we wives have had on them.


Give me a Good Reason

As the third (and rebellious) child of parents who were about to retire, my parents needed me to give them a good enough reason before they’d give me their money. Clothes were not an option and I wore hand-me-downs or thrift store purchases. School supplies were standard items bought on sale.

Matching Contributions

However, my mother encouraged me to save as a child: “Brenda, if you deposit what you’ve earned in your savings account, I’ll round it up to the next dollar.” She’d also do this if I saved for example, $8.50. She’d add enough to make it an even $10. With part-time work, by the time I left home, I saved several thousand dollars for college expenses, food, and rent.

Paying for College at age 16

When I was fifteen and a high school sophomore, my father pulled me aside, “I’m about to retire. You’re still young, and you’ll need to go to college. I don’t care what you major in but you must go to school. Since I’ll be on a limited income, you’ll have to pay for it.”

Since I disliked the social pressures of high school, I worked harder and graduated at the end of my junior year. Enrolling in the state university at age sixteen, I was the first child to move out of my parents’ home at eighteen. As the youngest of three, I not only paid for my entire college education but went on to earn a graduate degree.

Surviving Double-Digit Inflation

When the economy dealt a more severe blow to the Midwest in the early eighties than today, it took a lot of effort to succeed amidst inflation and interest rates exceeding 15%. Creativity and fortitude were essential ingredients to survive as they are today.

What did I learn from my parents?


Below, are the three key money management tips I learned from my parents that I still practice today.

1. Ask yourself, “Do I really NEED this?”

  • A daily $4 coffee habit for each workday adds up to $1,000 a year.
  • An afternoon soda habit runs about $200 a year.
  • A three-day a week eating out habit will approach $2,000 a year.

Imagine the memorable vacation you could take after bringing in a thermos of coffee or your own soda, a home-made lunch, and having dinner at home (healthier). You’d save about $2,000 a year!

If you don’t spend your money on the little things each day, you’ll be surprised by how much you’ve saved at the end of the year.

2. Record your expenses – Yes, every penny.

This will give you an idea of how much you are spending and on what.

Recording what you spend has an added benefit. The hassle of writing everything down will make you think before mindlessly plugging the vending machine or pulling into a drive-through.

Life was not easy when my husband and I started our lives together in the late seventies. We spent $5 on food a week for a year. What did we buy with $5 a week? Five cans of corn for $1 (on sale), two gallons of milk, and a twenty-pound bag of potatoes. This diet sustained us for a year! We could have eaten healthier on welfare!

Across thirty-four years, when times were tight, we reviewed our expenses and discovered where we could cut back, such as, dining out (including fast food). We now eat healthier at home while saving enough for the FUN times!

3. Pay cash

Try to pay with cash. Credit is deceptive and an emergency may prevent you from paying what you owe. Save first then pay with cash. If you must use a credit card, pay it off at the end of the month.

I still practice my parents’ lessons of saving, recording what I spend, and maintaining low debt with only a mortgage and a 0% car loan.

Michael Ortiz

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