The Debt Heritage
How I Got Used to Financial Deficit
Reebok Pumps but No Water
My parents didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, but you would never know it. They sent me to private school 13 years in a row. They bought me $200 Reebok pumps in the early 90s (about $430 today when accounting for inflation). They paid for a two-and-a-half-week class trip to Italy my sophomore year of high school. There was just one problem: They couldn’t afford it.
They couldn’t build a nest egg. They racked up credit card debt. They couldn’t buy a house. They couldn’t pay the bills. The utility companies cut off our electricity, our phone, and our water.
I got used to pouring gallons of water we bought at Pathmark into the toilet tank so that we could flush. I got used to the hiss of the kerosene lamp we’d use at night to see. I’d go to the pay phone down the block to make plans with my friends. None of that seemed strange to me at the time. I was a happy kid. I had everything I wanted.
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Getting Used to Debt
I learned to accept debt as a way of life. My parents never talked about 401(k)s or college funds. They didn’t talk about estate planning or savings. They talked about credit cards and bills. The mentality wasn’t to build. It was to mortgage the present. We’d figure out the rest later. I internalized that mentality.
Rutgers offered me a full academic scholarship. Maybe I would break the cycle after all. Maybe my parents’ investment in private schools had paid off. The deficit then would become a gain now — except I didn’t go to Rutgers. I went to Boston College, where I would accumulate tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
I’m not saying I should’ve gone to Rutgers, but I should’ve at least considered it. Instead, I chose the more expensive path, reflexively, because I thought I had to go to the “best” school possible, regardless of the financial burden. If you go to the best school, you get the better job and the better life. My parents agreed. They helped me pay for school, further eating into their wealth building.
Why the Debt Mentality?
My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they had enough to build. Was it frivolous to buy me Reebok Pumps? Was it vain to send me to private school? No, they refused to let me want for anything, even at their own expense (especially my mom). They sent me to Catholic school not to put on airs but because they didn’t want me in the Union City public school system.
Of course, there were other reasons they overextended themselves:
The Cost of Emigrating
It’s easier to save money when you have assets to lean on: a house, a car, a business, a trust fund, etc. Often, moving to a new country is financially motivated, as it was with my parents, who moved to the United States in the 1970s with an eye toward saving enough money to move back to Argentina and start a business. In other words, they moved to acquire some of those aforementioned assets, but the move itself depleted their resources.
They spent years treading water, slowly building up a large enough sum of money to start a bakery back home. When the investment fell apart, however, they had to start all over again. They never saved up as much money again.
In addition to the cost of emigrating and the absence of a financial foundation, my parents labored under the assumption that they wouldn’t be given second chances. So, they bet it all on the present. When you bet it all on the present, you invariably sacrifice your future. Whether I knew it or not, I subscribed to that approach.
That way of thinking doesn’t just affect wealth building, it impacts career growth. A scarcity mentality will dictate what you’re willing to settle on, what you have the confidence to pursue, and how aggressively you’re willing to negotiate — all of which has an impact on your career trajectory, which of course ladders up to wealth.
From Scarcity to Opportunity
So how do you break the cycle? It’s never easy changing habits, especially when they get passed down from one generation to the next, but it begins with a reframing: Choosing not to spend money isn’t deprivation, it’s betting on future wealth. Forgoing the expensive car isn’t depriving yourself, it’s proactive wealth building. It’s about building the habits to support growth. It’s about trusting yourself and believing tomorrow will be better than today.