I read an article the other day which nearly knocked me flat with admiration. In an era when I often despair over the whining of the younger generation, this woman restored my faith.
But before launching into the story, I want to back up a bit and discuss many of the problems faced by millennials. This generation of highly educated young people says they can’t get ahead. The biggest culprits are student loan debt, low-paying jobs, cost of living and sky-high housing costs. These, let the record show, are all legitimate problems. As a result, a huge proportion of millennials are still living with their parents and wonder if they’ll ever be able to buy a home or achieve other milestones of adulthood.
OK, this sets the scene.
Now let’s talk about a woman named Lily He, whose story is told in this article. In her words: “I was born in southern China in what was then a small fishing village. Everyone lived in wooden shacks with tarps. … My dad’s sister immigrated to San Francisco, and she helped us come over when I was 9. When we arrived, it was my first time in a car. I couldn’t believe how neat all the houses were, in rows like that. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.”
Ms. He – an only child – relates how she and her parents lived in her aunt’s basement for years. “When we first got to San Francisco, our financial situation was awful.” Her parents “were always taking whatever jobs they could. At first, my dad worked in the meat section of a grocery store. Then he worked as a baker-slash-janitor. My mom still works as a caretaker for an elderly woman. After a little while, they saved up enough money to rent our own flat. We found our mattresses on the street and put them on the floor and slept like that, in the same room, for years.”
Stop for a minute and think about this. Here’s a woman whose family came from a condition of poverty unfathomable by U.S. standards. They immigrated to this country and managed to thrive despite language barriers and poverty.
Later the parents sent their daughter to school, after which she set out to build a legacy of wealth for her family. Ms. He recognizes what many Chinese people know: “It takes more than one generation to build stability. It takes multiple generations stacked on each other.”
Accordingly, Ms. He “made a decision that I would not repeat the cycle of poverty.” She graduated from college, contemplated going on for an advanced degree, but declined due to financial considerations and the responsibility to support her parents into their old age. She paid off $20,000 in student loan debt in eight months (eight months!) by working two and a half low-paying jobs.
Now in her 30s and married, she and her husband live solely on her income and save every penny of his. They are worth over $1.7 million.
Despite financial success, Ms. He continues to work hard running two website businesses (and trying to start a third), operating a doggy daycare, an AirBnB and renting out the other bedrooms in their home. Three of them (herself, husband and her father who lives with them; her mother will move in when she retires) live on about $1,000 a month. Got that? One thousand dollars a month. For three people. In Seattle, one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation.
Besides the beauty of a rags-to-riches story, the reason this article captured my admiration is because the He family did not complain about the hardness of their lot. Nor did they sit on their laurels when they climbed out of poverty. Ms. He, firmly in the millennial generation, never whined about how tough she had it. She knew what “tough” was – she was born into it. But the usual complaints about why millennials can’t get ahead (student loan debt, high cost of living, housing expenses) didn’t cut the mustard with this lady.
“I currently save 90 percent of my income,” she writes. “It’s extreme, I know. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you must be planning to retire early, right?’ And I’m like, ‘No!’ Retiring sounds nice; don’t get me wrong. But my parents did not immigrate here and work their a**es off for 20 years so I could retire in my 30s. I’m here to work, to change the future of my family, and to make life better for my own kids eventually too.” [Emphasis added.]
In other words, Ms. He discovered the secret to rising out of poverty in America: grit, hard work, frugality and (arguably the most important component) attitude. She didn’t demand forgiveness for her student loans. She didn’t demand someone else’s wealth be “redistributed” to her. Instead, she made (and continues to make) short-term sacrifices for long-term gain.
Over and over, this recipe works. It worked for my own mother, born into extreme poverty and starvation on the bayous in Louisiana. It worked for my father, born to working-class immigrants who barely spoke English their whole lives. It worked for the family of one of my sisters-in-law, which arrived in this country with a suitcase apiece and no English, yet who managed to purchase a home and college educate all their children. It worked for my other two sisters-in-law who similarly arrived from distant nations, without skills and unable to communicate in English.
Rather than gripe and moan about how white privilege kept them from achieving their goals, every single one of these people buckled down, worked hard, lived frugally and changed not only their own lives, but the lives of their descendants.
That, folks, is what makes America great.
And that’s what ticks me off whenever anyone complains they can’t succeed. Tell that to the He family. Tell that to my sisters-in-law. Tell that to millions upon millions of legal immigrants who have used the freedoms America offers to rise out of poverty.
If the He family can succeed, why can’t this generation of smart, educated millennials achieve similar success? If Ms. He can save $1.7 million despite similar student loan debt, cost of living and housing prices in one of America’s most expensive cities, why can’t everyone?
As it turns out, many are. White, black, Asian, Hispanic, male, female – more and more people are playing with FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) and achieving success through – wait for it – hard work, frugality and attitude. Who’da thunk?
Not everyone aspires to wealth – we don’t – and some millennials prefer to attain other goals besides financial independence. That’s fine, as long as you don’t whine about your hardships or expect others to bail you out or fund your dreams.
The whiniest generation can’t claim their lives are so much harder than Mr. and Mrs. He. Just sayin’.