Do you have a wealth building mindset?
by UF founder Suzanna Lam
I came to the US with just clothes on my back. Literally. I didn’t have anything other than clothes. I didn’t have a penny to my name. My mom didn’t have any money to her name, either. To survive in America, we had to borrow money from close family members to pay our monthly rent and buy food, with a promise to them that once I graduated from college, I would then pay it back.
The five of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco. I still remember how much rent costed; it was $850/month. The place was infested with cockroaches and rats. Every time I walked to the kitchen and flipped on the light switch, I could see all those filthy animals scurrying away to avoid the lights. All of the money I made from working part-time as a cashier at a McDonald’s for $4.25 an hour was used to cover only part of the rent. My younger brother, 16 years old at the time, also had to work selling newspapers on the streets or freeway entrances where cars would stop at a red light before entering the freeway. He thought instead of standing there begging for money, maybe he could sell something to make him feel good about taking money from strangers.
My mom also held two jobs to scrap a few dollars together. Life was tough for us, very tough.
None of us knew any English because we were brand new immigrants from Vietnam. We had been told America was the land of opportunity. We could be somebody here; we could get anything we wanted here. “Yeah, what a pipe dream”, I thought every night. I blamed my mom for even bringing us here to this strange land. People looked at us like we were from a different planet. They would laugh at us when we tried to speak to them. The kids at school were rude to me and my siblings. How can America be the land of the opportunity when every month, coming up with enough money to pay for rent and food was the hardest thing we thought we ever did? I didn’t see any opportunity other than an opportunity to be so dirt poor. They should have called America “The land of the dirt poor opportunity”, I told myself and I told my mom. She looked at me with her gentle eyes and kept saying “don’t worry child, you go to school, you get that college degree in accounting, you help me pay off this debt we owe XX, you save money, you invest and your dream will come true”.
After thirty years of living in the promised land, looking back, I can proudly say that America, indeed, is the land of opportunity. However, it is a dream come true only if one knows where to look for the right information. In other words, there hasn’t been a book yet about how someone with nothing landing in America can live their dream of having everything he/she ever wanted. I’m not talking about just money. I’m talking about having and enjoying a life. I’m talking about to fully live knowing that nothing is impossible here in America, including the ability to have optimal health spiritually, physically, emotionally, mentally as well as financially AKA SPEMF. I call that wealth. I believe one will have wealth only if one’s five health mentioned above is at an optimal state. I wouldn’t call someone having billions of dollars wealthy if that person is not fulfilled in the other four areas of health.
First, allow me to address the financial part of health in this series. When it comes to wealth building, the process has been so mysterious and convoluted to many poor families, lower middle class, middle class American families (families making less than $100,000 a year in general depending on where you live in the US) that we, as a society, have several popular proverbs when we talk about money and finance. For example, the most common ones are ” it takes money to make money” and “the rich get richer, the poor become poorer”. But have you actually ever stopped for five minutes and really asked “are these money sayings true?”. I can assure you that none of it is true. As I said earlier, in this article, I will demystify the money myth to reveal to you how doable it is for anyone to start building a wealth mindset. I didn’t say “to have”, I said “to build”. I believe in order to achieve greatness in everything one wishes to have in life (it doesn’t limit to just money), one must first develop certain habits in life to form what I call “habit bricks” which are then used to build a great long lasting wealth pyramid like those in Egypt. The first habit, which I will explore in this article, is the habit of being curious, more specifically curious about money since we’re talking about money in this article.
Did anyone teach me that habit? No, I was never taught this. I just happened to be “lucky” enough to stumble upon it, dig a bit deeper and deeper until I couldn’t get out of the hole I dug myself into. I then had no choice but to get to know it, study it, make it a habit of mine at a very young age (younger than most of my peers who are until today still trying to figure it out).
About two weeks after I started my first job at a McDonald’s as I mentioned above, I got my first paycheck. I was ecstatic. That first paycheck meant the loan we owed XX was going to be smaller. I hated to borrow money from someone or ask money from someone. I opened the envelop my supervisor had just handed me after my four-hour shift. I already knew how much I would make. $170. Yup. For the last two weeks, I had looked forward to the day when I got my first check. I was going to go the bank to open my first checking account with that $170. Nothing could be worse to me at the time than when I saw a number less than $170 on the paycheck. How could it be? Did they just take my $50 and hide it somewhere?
Being a brand new immigrant and shy, I didn’t know enough English nor the nerve to ask my supervisor why my check was $50 less than what I was supposed to get. I didn’t want to confront her. I thought I’d go home and ask a few close family members to find out exactly what was going on here. Needless to say, when I showed them my paycheck, they laughed so hard that tears came out of their eyes. They said the missing $50 was for taxes. I was completely shocked. What taxes? I never heard of that before in my life. How come in my home economics class my teacher didn’t tell me there was something called taxes? We learned about cooking, but he never once mentioned that word “taxes”. No one at my school talked about taxes. My friends didn’t tell me there would be taxes taken out of my pay. Where did this tax come from and where did it go to? I knew where babies came from. But taxes? Impossible. This must be a mistake. I thought the idea of the government trying to take my $50 was the most ridiculous idea ever invented in America. In Vietnam, no one was paying taxes. If people had paid taxes, I would have known because I knew the ladies in my neighborhood had nothing to talk about but gossiping about bad things happening around them. “Well, if you never heard of the word taxes before it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it just means you don’t know about it, child, welcome to America, everyone pays taxes here. ” So I was told.
“Yeah, everyone who works”
“So how would I know they’re not cheating me by taking my money and spending it on something I don’t know?”
“Ha, that’s what they do, sorry to tell you, no one knows 100% for sure where their tax money goes after it gets taken out of your paycheck. It’s kind of like magic, it’s gone, but what you can do is, every year, file your tax return. If the government says they owe you some money, you will get some of the money they took from you back in the form of a tax refund. If you owe them more taxes then you need to give them more money”
“Are you serious? How can it be a refund when it’s your own sweat and tears? It’s not like I mistakenly give them the money and now they’re returning it to me. They intentionally take my money, they’d better give me back my money plus interest.”
They all cracked up until they were on the floor. I looked at them, very puzzled. “Why laugh? Don’t they think this is a very serious matter that needs to be addressed immediately instead of laughing? “
At any rate, you can imagine how long that conversation went between me and them. It was long. I didn’t give up. I kept pushing for more information about this thing called “taxes” until no one in the family could answer any more of my questions. They all walked away leaving me alone with what seemed to me like millions of unanswered questions about taxes.
So for the next 8 years of my life, instead of spending time studying only accounting, I actually spent time studying this thing called “taxes”. I wanted to know everything about taxes, how it worked and why it worked. The first few years weren’t very productive for me because after school and work, I had very little time to spend on translating tax forms and tax instructions. Thirty years ago was very different. Today, here in California, almost all formal documents from the government have been translated into many different languages. You name it, they have it. Chinese version, Spanish version, Vietnamese version, Farsi version etc… Back then, I had to translate every word I read from English to Vietnamese. Not understanding English grammar didn’t help much as I was trying to translate perfect tense of a verb into something that sounded so ridiculous in Vietnamese. I came from a culture that didn’t have grammatical verb tenses by the way.
After many hours of translating tax forms and tax instructions I almost gave up because I didn’t understand what the government was trying to tell me. (I’m very sure many native English speakers who are reading this article can relate). However, after a few days of not doing the translation work I thought I couldn’t let the government win. I thought maybe they intentionally made it so obscured so that no one could understand. That for sure would ensure they would always win this game. Now it got more personal, me versus them. I wished someone from the government would come to my place and asked me at least if I was willing to give away my money from my paychecks and explain to me how the whole taxing system works. I’d like them to ask me if I was OK with the way the game was set up. I certainly was not OK because I didn’t understand what they were talking about.
That was the first step of my journey digging this hole called “taxes”. I completed my first tax return since I landed in the US in 1990 for tax year 1989. Mission accomplished. I got some of my money back, alright. Regardless, some of my money is still stuck in something called Social Security and Medicare until this day, 30 years after it was taken out from my first paycheck. I heard this Social Security thing could run out of money someday very soon because there are more people taking from it than the people putting into it. Simple math, right?
What’s the point of all this? First lesson in wealth building: having the habit of asking critical questions about money. It doesn’t matter how trivial your questions may seem. You ought to ask until you get to the bottom of it. In hindsight, I was actually addressing the most fundamental and important factor in a wealth building formula, taxes. As a matter of fact, all billionaires, multi-millionaires and other people with lots of money address their tax “problems” by forking over lots of money to pay their tax attorneys, tax CPA’s to come up with good and legal tax strategies to keep more of what they make. If you don’t believe me, ask Warren Buffet, President Trump or Former Presidents of the US. The poor and middle class people, on the other hand, avoid taxes by getting paid under the table, working for cash, keeping their cash under their mattresses, safe deposit box etc… . Furthermore, it is an open secret that the rich and the wealthy make lots of money moving their money around different tax baskets (more on this later in a different article) and live a luxurious lifestyle. Yet their tax bill, as a percentage of their total income, is usually far less than that of a regular average Joe’s family down the street. Hmm, it doesn’t seem fair.
In conclusion, having a habit of asking questions about money is the first brick one must have in their quest of building a wealth mindset. If a poor and broke Vietnamese immigrant without a penny was willing to invest 8 years of her life to learn about something she didn’t know, which was essential in wealth building, then anyone who has some patience and persistence can do it, too. So it really doesn’t take money to make money. I didn’t pay any tax CPA or tax attorney to help me with tax strategies to make more money on my money. I went and learned it myself. I do not want to sound arrogant but it’s very true, it’s my labor, all mine. Could it be that all it takes is curiosity and a desire to learn about money to make money? Maybe. Let’s explore more in the next article, shall we?