Broke Millennial Erin Lowry spent a significant amount of her childhood abroad. Here she discusses adapting to life as an American entering college and becoming a Grownup.
In August 2007, I became a college freshman in America, 6,000 miles away from my family in Shanghai, China. I had just moved back after nearly eight years in Asia; it was time to start over as an American.
My ability to seamlessly fit in got off to a rocky start during some typical early freshman year chit-chat.
Me: “So where are you from?”
Me: “Really? I spent New Year’s in Geneva a few years ago. Switzerland is such a beautiful country.”
Boy: “Uh, like Geneva, New York.”
Me: “Oh, um, I need to go to the bathroom.”
During those first weeks back, I listened and observed my fellow college classmates, and often needed to look up pop culture references and colloquialisms. Relearning how and what it meant to be an American felt like a daunting task: I hadn’t spent the last eight years watching the same TV shows, going on the same type of vacations, or even in a similar school environment. (Instead of homecoming and football, my school had winter ball and rugby.)
During this time of desperately wanting to find a cultural identity (and also just being an angst-ridden 18-year-old), I started to develop some serious money concerns.
My parents had taken all the right steps: I had an account, in my name, with the same bank my parents used so they could easily wire transfer money if an emergency arose. My mom also took me to a brick-and-mortar bank, walking distance from school, to set up an account where I could cash checks. (This was before smartphones enabled me to deposit with the click of a button.) They explained how a debit card worked, since I’d been living in the primarily cash-based societies of Japan and China and had never swiped plastic to make a purchase. Admittedly, I still only used cash for the first two years of college before I finally became comfortable with using cards for my purchases.
Taking it one step further, my dad had me open up my first credit card, which came with a whopping $250 credit limit. He explained how credit cards functioned and that they’re used to build something called a credit history.
“Just make one small purchase a month and pay it off in full,” he advised. Thanks in part to my parents’ generosity and some academic scholarships, I didn’t have any student loans, which is why my dad encouraged me to start properly using a credit card. Apparently, it was going to matter later. (He was right: When I moved to New York City right out of college, that credit card use had earned me a 720 credit score, which helped me get approved for an apartment.)
At first, though, that credit card sat dormant in my wallet for months. It seemed like fake money to me and with everything else going on in my life, trying to figure out just one more part of being an American felt far too overwhelming. To be honest, I don’t even remember the first credit card purchase I made, but eventually, I started using it just to purchase a tank of gas for my car once a month. (I didn’t need to drive much in college.) Within a year, my credit limit had doubled to $500, and I never carried a balance.
With a checking account and credit card all set up, there was one final way I financially began coping with my transition back to America: an emergency savings fund.
There were 6,000 miles and a 12-hour time difference between my family and me (13 hours when Daylight Savings Time was in effect). Knowing it would take days for anyone in my family to be able to get to me if anything went wrong—and vice versa—made me want access to a stash of cash at a moment’s notice. No, I didn’t keep a safe of bills in my dorm. (Well, I did…but not my entire stash of cash reserves.) I liked knowing that, should something happen and I’d need to fly back to China or pay for an emergency, I was covered.
Thankfully, no emergency ever arose, and the manic saving led to a well-endowed “move to New York City” fund for after graduation. I also managed to finally feel at home back in the United States and acclimate to being an American again. It may have helped that I went back to Shanghai every Christmas and summer vacation, so I got my fill of expat life while becoming fluent in how to be a proper American (or at least being able to act as one passably).
Erin Lowry is the founder of BrokeMillennial.com,
where she uses sarcasm and humor to explain
basic financial concepts to her fellow Millennials.
Erin lives and works in New York City.
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