On Immigrants And Being Cheap

Marie Myunk-Ok Lee (no relation) wrote a humorous Op-Ed for The New York Times discussing how Mitt Romney’s campaign staff may have cost him the Asian-American vote by releasing an anecdote stating that he only eats the tops of muffins. The reasoning was pretty basic: Asian immigrants like her father are hyper-frugal and would be turned off, if not incensed, upon finding out that Mitt was wasting muffins. I read the op-ed and thought to myself: “Mitt just screwed himself with all the immigrants,” because, well, a lot of us (immigrants and their offspring) are notoriously cheap.

This is not to say that all immigrants are prudent money managers, but let’s just say that a large percentage of us think of our own families and immigrant friends when we hear stories like the ones Ms. Lee shared about her father refusing to throw away food that was a day or two past the expiration date, and eating takeout that was left out all night.

“Cheapness” typically conjures images of people who buy cheap goods at Wal-Mart, instead of the more expensive, higher quality goods that last longer. However, “immigrant cheapness” is more nuanced than that, existing over a continuum that goes from practical stories of sacrificing to get ahead, to just plain silly.

My first experience with money came around when I was about four years old. I don’t recall the exact specifics but I do recall my mother giving me money, telling me to put it in my Donald Duck bank, and regularly telling me how important it was to both save and be good with money. This was the start of a lifelong series of lessons from my Mother around the virtue of being cheap, but not just how being cheap was a good thing, but how it was “part of my culture” as the child of a Caribbean immigrant.  As she would always say, “A Caribbean man is never broke, he’s just spent the money he hasn’t set aside for savings.”

The lesson took hold: To this day, I feel “broke” when I’m running low on cash in my spending account, even if my accounts for bills and savings have plenty of money in them.

My mother often made it sound like not being cheap and good with money (synonymous in our culture) would be analogous to letting down not just my own family, but everyone of Caribbean descent on earth. Okay, I’m kind of exaggerating, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m in my 30s and I still feel guilty whenever I make a big purchase. I can spend money on an awesome vacation and part of me will wonder, “If I had invested that money I could have X right now.” Even the $300 I spent at the eye doctor yesterday put a dark cloud over the rest of my day even though it’s for something as critical as, well, my vision. Maybe that was just the gray Seattle skyline.

A regular story my mother told me was that of my great-aunt who moved to New York City from the Caribbean who walked everywhere she had to go for three years instead of spending money on mass transit. She did this so she could:

1) Put herself through college and become a teacher.
2) Save up money to bring her sister here.
3) Save up for a down payment on a house.

Her two sisters did the same thing when they came to America as well, walking everywhere, pinching pennies and sacrificing to get an education and bring over the next sister.

It’s hard to ask your parents to buy you a bicycle after hearing a story like that.

My father used a similar strategy after he came here from the U.K. to save up money to buy a car—a car he drove all through law school and nearly a decade afterwards. He considered buying another car, but decided against it after a neighbor told him that he had taken out a loan to buy a parking space, because parking wasn’t always readily available in their area.

“Can you imagine Markham? Taking out a loan to buy a parking space, a parking space, after you’ve already spent a large sum of money or even taking out a loan to buy a Car?! It’s madness.”

Feel free to imagine the above comment in my dad’s unique blend of a British accent with a good dose of Caribbean seasoning—it makes it a lot funnier.

While buying a parking space for your car is pretty normal behavior in certain New York circles, my Dad thinks it’s a form of mental illness.

My stepfather was also an immigrant (British Caribbean like my father, because me Mum had a thing—let’s not talk about it), only he has a Ph.D. in Math. Needless to say, this allowed him to apply a quantitative approach to immigrant cheapness. For example, he had a list on the fridge with the cheapest routes to get various places based on fuel costs.

Fuel costs.

In his defense, what seemed silly when gas cost less than a dollar for the cheap stuff seems genius now.

My mom claims he would sit down and “run the numbers” to find areas where he could skim costs when he wanted to buy something expensive—he’d bring lunch to work, eat franks and beans, walk, whatever it took.

The goal of immigrant cheapness is to live the good American life, but as cheaply as possible.

The thing is, it’s not just my family and me. Many immigrant families are like this to some degree, because it often takes that level of financial discipline and willingness to sacrifice to gather up the resources to come here in the first place. I also think it’s a function of coming from places where people are used to living with less, even if the person comes here from an affluent country. I have a rather well off European friend who asked me, “Markham, why do you have an entire Aisle dedicated to potato chips? What’s the point of 100 versions of the same product?”

My girlfriend and I have an on-going debate over who is cheaper: Caribbean people, or Asian people. I claim that we’re at a standstill, and she claims I’m not living up to my immigrant roots because I throw out food once it’s a day or two past the expiration date.

“That’s just wasteful American shit, this is perfectly good food you’re throwing away.”

This habit, plus my lack of pork consumption are my major faults according to her.

In her family, every tiny particle of food must be consumed when we eat, and I mean every particle. She doesn’t mind if I leave a grain or two of rice on my plate when we’re at home, but if we’re eating with her Mom, or at an Asian restaurant I know not to leave anything behind lest I “embarrass her.”

When we go to Costco, we often chuckle at how it’s one of the few places in the Seattle area (especially where I live) that appears diverse, because it’s often chock full of the various immigrants who have come to the area to work in the tech industry. Trust me when I say that immigrant families don’t waste anything that comes from Costco.  I read things all the time that say shopping at warehouse stores wastes money because you won’t use it all. That’s just not my experience—if we buy a giant box of oatmeal, we’ll use 100 percent of it.

Sometimes, my girlfriend and I go to Costco just hoping we can find a bargain, but I don’t think we’ve ever bought anything we didn’t actually need. As a result, we sometimes pull off the near impossible: leave Costco without buying anything, or after spending less than $50.00.

I have a Nigerian friend whose physician father once let the electricity get shut off to teach the kids a lesson about leaving lights on and wasting money. Upon hearing this story, my girlfriend told him that he had a “great father,” and said she was going to tell her family about this story in case her little cousins got too “Americanized and wasteful.”

But, she recently related how she thought her aunt was doing a good job with her little cousins, because she took them shopping, and they were wary of asking for something that cost $20.00.

“My Aunt makes really good money and she has them afraid to spend $20,” she said. “She’s such a good mother.”

We were trying to fly into New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but were only able to get as far as Philly. In an effort to avoid paying the huge one-way rental car fee, we wound up on a crazy adventure that involved: taking the train to Trenton, an overly amorous group of homeless people (don’t ask), an actual pimp, waiting hours for her friend to pick us up via Zipcar, and, when that failed, hiring a driver whose fare had ditched him to drive us to Brooklyn.

I think we saved “maybe” $40.00 in the end, but we were trying to save over $100. Some people hear this story and think we’re both a bit daft, but immigrant kids get it.

When I was finishing High School outside of Portland, Ore., I had some white classmates who would swear that the Asian immigrants in the area must be “dealing drugs” or “getting money from the government” to have nice cars, homes and/or businesses. My mom might hear someone saying this and would quickly correct them.

“They have those things because they come here, pinch pennies, work multiple jobs, share housing and sacrifice to get ahead,” she’d say. “They don’t waste their money on crap.”

I think my mom’s comment really captures the idea behind immigrant cheapness. Sure, it goes too far sometimes, but the goal is just to maximize resources and opportunities. At the end of the day, the same drive that helps people raise the money to come here is the same one that pushes them to walk around New York City for three years to build the life they dreamed about before they arrived.

Because of this, I prefer to use the word “efficient” over “cheap.”


Markham Lee is a freelance writer based in Seattle who has spilled pixels on topics ranging from music, relationships, television, and those instances where life is stranger than fiction. He’s also working on a science fiction novel he hopes to finish before 2020. His work has been published by Nerve.com, The Frisky, Pop Matters, and Seeking Alpha. You can find more of his writing on his blog, and some of his more random, yet semi-intelligent thoughts on Twitter. Photo: Nikola


34 Comments / Post A Comment

Vesna@twitter (#2,738)

Yes yes a million times yes. My paretns came from Eastern Europe and my mother stretches a dollar thinner than a black hole would. They bought cars, did renos, took vacations… all in cash. If they didn’t have the money, it didn’t happen. I wish I was as good with money as she is!

BornSecular (#2,245)

“I feel ‘broke’ when I’m running low on cash in my spending account, even if my accounts for bills and savings have plenty of money in them.” THIS. This is how I use the term “broke” as well. I’ve had change what I say around my in-laws though, because they know we have decent savings and give me shit for saying “broke” when I clearly am not (in their opinion). Now I say I don’t want to spend my money on something, instead of saying I’m broke. I suppose it is more accurate. Technically.

thatgirl (#1,965)

@BornSecular I think this is the fundamental difference between ‘poor’ and ‘broke’ in my mind.

the rat lady (#785)

My dad makes approximately one prajillion dollars per year and still eats mostly beans and rice and reuses tin foil. I wash and reuse ziploc bags and have been wearing the same winter coat for the last 13 years. Immigrant cheapness represent!

Markham (#1,862)

@the rat lady I have a winter Coat I bought in ’99 too! I just need to have new buttons added, other than that it’s in tip top shape.

Too bad I live in Seattle and can get by with a windbreaker

Pumpkin (#2,153)

I admire the cheapness, I do. But there’s a limit to everything.

@Pumpkin It’s true. When you’re making yourself or others around you miserable, it’s time to plunk down the cash already.

Pumpkin (#2,153)

@Sandra Boiteau@facebook I kind of wish the author had included a paragraph or something about frugal/cheap vs. miserly. Being cheap is one thing. Being miserly is a completely different animal and something that isn’t really anything to be proud of.

Markham (#1,862)

Glad you guys enjoyed the essay!

So, who throws away the entire muffin? WTF? Seriously, something about throwing away food irritates me to no end.

My girlfriend is traveling overseas (I meet up with her on Tuesday) and she was reticent to send me text messages (at $0.20 a pop) so she just e-mailed me responses to my texts.

“Hey, just send me one so I know it works”

“NO! It’s $0.20 for a text message! That’s too expensive”

“Just to test it”


“We need to know it works so we can coordinate things, and you won’t always have free WiFi”


16 texts later – I have the number $3.20 in my head…..

My goal for this vacation is to come in under budget, well under budget.

@Markham BAHAHAH. That sounds exactly like something I would do. Awesome.

In fact, I spent far too much time on an overseas trip trying to wrangle free ways to communicate with my fiance (skype, whatsapp, etc) in response to his texts. There was the added confusion by the fact I didn’t know if I *could* send him texts – I didn’t have roaming explicitly set up and had no idea if he was receiving the messages I *was* sending to start with.

selenana (#673)

@Markham Yes! It’s not that I don’t have the money, it’s that I resent spending money on overpriced bullshit.

My S.O.’s Caribbean relatives are coming to visit us for Christmas, and will be sleeping on the couch in our tiny studio, cooking meals at home, and going to free museums. Also they are flying in on Christmas Eve and leaving on New Years Day to save €€€ on airfare.

Whereas if my parents came to visit they would stay in a hotel and take us out to nice restaurants — even though her family is in a much better financial position, on paper.

I had never heard of thriftiness as being a specific Caribbean trait, but interestingly enough most of our (very uptight) finance staff at work are from that region as well.

Markham (#1,862)


When I went to college I was given a short list for majors:
Engineering or Comp Sci

Finance/Accounting was the preferred one, and I’m still technically in trouble for picking engineering over accounting.

Your SO’s family sounds like mine…

I was always told being tight with money is a Caribbean trait, at least that’s what my Caribbean parents tell me.

All of this describes my immigrant husband so perfectly, it’s almost eerie. He is cheap, cheap, CHEAP. And you know what? I love that he’s cheap! I love not having to lie awake at night thinking about all of the purchases we’ve made that we can’t afford! I love that I can trust him not to put us into debt! I love that by living simply most of the time, we can have a nice meal sometimes, a nice vacation sometimes, a nice new coat sometimes. It’s so much better than buying cars we can’t afford, gadgets we can’t afford, eating out every night, and then ending up in a panic because we can’t pay the electric bill.

Great essay!

rural 14 (#485)

Big error here – huge error. This is not “cheap” – this is a thoughtful and proper relationship to money. When you slander yourself and your parents and your friends by calling intelligent behavior ‘cheap’, you subtly reinforce the consumerist marketing mentality that has helped the US turn into a whirlpool of cheap profiteers and consumers who know the value of nothing. It’s not ‘cheap’ – it’s a window into how to live happily in the world. I’m a 4th generation American, however my family has always understood that money and possessions & etc are a tool for us, not something for enslavement. I’m happy with my entire household purchased from ebay and tag sales, but in the same vein, not being sucked dry by ‘wasting’ time looking for stuff. Less stuff! Mortgage paid off / no student debt etc. Again – it’s not cheap, it’s REASONABLE.

Markham (#1,862)

@rural 14 Cheap isn’t a pejorative in my family, it’s a compliment, ditto for my girlfriend’s family and a lot of the immigrants I know.

Megoon (#328)

@rural 14 At the end of the essay he says he prefers “efficient,” which I think is a great term for it.

I’m not American, but I would judge any politician who said anything about such blatant food wastage :P

I also feel ‘broke’ if there is nothing in my cheque account, no matter how much is in my other accounts.

selenana (#673)

Ha ha, did you go to school in Beaverton, aka the Asian suburb? My parents live there now, and though I didn’t grow up there, it often feels more diverse than Portland itself (which isn’t saying much).

selenana (#673)

@selenana Great essay, as always. I really enjoy reading every time you post, and find your pieces to be among the most relatable on this site. Thank you!

cynicalsunshine (#1,514)

Can my parents, one of whom is British (living in the States) but not a minority, and the other of whom is plain old white American, be considered honorary immigrants in their approach to money? Because I FULLY related to this essay, right down to the eating leftovers that have been out all night, disregarding expiration dates completely, and driving cars into the ground because why would you buy a new (used) car when the one you have hasn’t died yet? What about my parents’ refusal to air condition anything but the bedrooms in our house in Miami? My dad rode his bike 14 miles to and from work every day (in Miami, so it was possible year round, but also disgusting). I hated my parents’ frugality growing up, but now that I’m old enough to have plenty of my own financial woes, I can see that the reason we were able to afford a cabin in Georgia (which my parents built themselves) was because we didn’t get new cars every couple years, didn’t dine out frequently, and didn’t buy new clothes (I am a thrift store junkie by birthright), among other things. It would serve our country well to adopt this immigrant approach to money, I think!

Niko Bellic (#311)

To this day, I feel “broke” when I’m running low on cash in my spending account, even if my accounts for bills and savings have plenty of money in them.

I totally do this (I’m an immigrant from Eastern Europe).

I have to add this though: the most wasteful thing an immigrant can do upon coming to US is to settle in New York City. I don’t care if you walk every day instead of using subway, if you did that same thing in say Chicago, you’d save a whole lot more!

You don’t come to NYC to keep your bottom line in check, you come here to raise your top line! So, my first advice to newcomers is to go to some other city first (Chicago is probably the best in my opinion) to “establish yourself”, and then come to NYC when you are able to spend some money in order to get those things from this city for which it is worth.

DarlingMagpie (#1,695)

@Niko Bellic I think the piece is less about “saving” and more about “living reasonably.” There’s no reason somebody shouldn’t move to NYC or wherever if they can make it so, and this entire thread/piece is full of people saying how their parents/family were cheap/efficient and made it work. NYC isn’t just for the established nor should it be.

Megoon (#328)

@Niko Bellic Ha I was thinking that as I read! My husband’s entire family immigrated here from Poland, and ended up in Chicago. They CANNOT BELIEVE what we spend in rent in NYC. At this point we just lie to them.

I’m sure this is true, but obviously it’s not exclusive to immigrant kids–it’s often also the case for the children of overworked single mothers. I’m very frugal with money because of my mom. I walk as much as possible in LA, freak out at my roommate when she leaves the lights on, and won’t buy anything that’s not on sale. So my super white ass feels you.

vimalakirti (#2,866)

My wife is an immigrant from Brazil, and has precisely the opposite impulse, to SPEND ALL OF HER MONEY IMMEDIATELY AS SOON AS SHE GETS IT. While part of this is due to a screwed up upbringing, it also has to do with hyperinflation in the 1980’s–a hamburger that cost 1 Real in 1980 would have set you back 28 Reais in 1984.

honey cowl (#1,510)

I loved this. And I totally understand the gray clouds here in Seattle getting you down, Markham. I mean, THE RAIN THIS WEEKEND!

EloiseG (#2,867)

I have this exact approach to money as well, although I am not an immigrant or the child or immigrants, and I get into arguments with my mother about these things all the time. She places value on having nicer things, even at a higher cost, whereas I place a value on having not spent money. To her, it’s a false savings, since there’s no point in having money if you’re not enjoying it. For me, not spending money IS enjoying it, but I know I can go overboard with it.

I’m more willing to consider paying for luxury in theory, since she has a point, but in practice I still felt physically ill when I spent $200 on a single item of clothing, even if it does “last forever”. You can definitely go too far in either direction.

Trilby (#191)

Young people (like my kids) share a common misconception. They believe products are “past the expiration date” and have turned to lethal poison when actually it is only the last date on which a product can be sold that has passed. The product is still good until it has visible mold or smells bad.

PiedPiper (#484)

@Trilby To get technical, the bacteria and molds that cause food spoilage do not usually cause illness. It’s the pathogenic bacteria, such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella and Listeria, that you have to worry about, and these don’t make dangerous food look or smell any worse than good food. Sometimes mold or stinkiness can be an indication that the food has been left in conditions where pathogenic bacteria may thrive, but not always.

baked bean (#1,839)

Guys, I am not from an immigrant family, but my family is pretty cheap. Not as cheap as this, but I can still relate some. My grandma’s probably worth 2 million (none of which has been shared with me) and she reuses plastic wrap. We used to make fun of her, but I admire it now, and I do it too. Waste not!

Also, wtf about the 2-day expired food? I will eat something until it smells, looks, or tastes spoiled. The date is just a guess, a conservative one. The farther away the expiration date is from the time it was made (like for example, packaged food) the more you can ignore the date. I learned this from my other grandma, everything at her house was expired (except things that mattered like milk and meat).

Jessica_Rabid (#2,873)

Hmm. My stepmother has a lot of traits like this. She STAYS in Costco–the garage is full of pasta and paper towels and extra sausages and chicken and she always thinks it is time to go back when the 16-pack gets down to 8 or 9 left. I thought it was maybe more like her instinct was still to guard against ever running out of food or essentials even though she has enough money that it is not a realistic worry anymore. Also she washes paper plates. I do not even know HOW she washes paper plates w/out them falling apart, sheer force of will I suppose.

nutmeg (#1,383)

Our company’s policy (and our company has a policy on everything) on milk is that milk (and yogurt, and whipped cream- did I mention I work at an ice cream shop?) doesn’t get dumped until five days after the sell-by date. We are also supposed to smell/taste food that seems like it might be bad, but I refuse to do that since I get paid $8/hour to “taste-test” potentially rancid foods while my higher-ups get paid $1,000,000/year to write rules ordering me to “taste-test” potentially rancid foods

To be fair, at my last job I used to go by how things smelled (and then my alcoholic boss would taste-test them); I once spent almost an hour smelling out a dead rat in the basement.

LONGSTORYSHORT: don’t eat anywhere, ever

Stacy H@twitter (#1,155)

My parents immigrated from South Africa, so some things must not apply to all immigrants. My mom always says that if I can spend a little more to avoid suffering, just do it. For example, I was considering taking a $10 train at 6 am. But that would mean waking up at 5, waiting in the cold and dark for a bus that may not actually arrive, and getting to my destination way before my meeting. Why not take the $15 train at 8 am and avoid the trouble and not fall asleep halfway through the day? It’s only $5. (As I think of it, 2 Starbucks.) It would be different if it were $50 and $100, but here the difference is so slight, why not go for the better option?

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