My Dysfunctional Family Background: How It Shaped My Early Financial Thinking

My mother was a diagnosed schizophrenic and my father an alcoholic.  I only knew the term "dysfunctional" when I reached adulthood and realized that my family situation could probably be termed as such.  Starting from when I was only a one-month old baby, I was raised by a nanny whom I affectionately called "Grandma", up to the age of 16.  Details were fuzzy but the reason given was that my parents couldn't handle 5 children when I was born.  (In fact, they probably couldn't even take care of themselves.)

My parents would pay my nanny about $150 when I was young, and that increased to about $300 every month, oftentimes late in payments. And that was about it.  No visits, no calls, nothing, except to sign my yearly school report card.  I knew my nanny helped chip in to pay for my expenses.  I was constantly reminded every Chinese New Year when I went visiting with my nanny and her family members. People would ask whose child I was.  It was a story often repeated, but which I would rather not.  I felt kind of like how an abandoned child would feel, I suppose.  Until of course, things took a change for the worse.

When I turned 16, I was asked to return to my so-called real family because my "grandma" couldn't afford to help chip in taking care of me. She was going through financial difficulties herself because her son, whom she was staying with, had passed away.  The memory of her crying beside me on the bed we shared, confiding in me how she couldn't cope with three grandchildren to take care of, still deeply etched in my memory. I believe she loved me too much to send me home, unless she really had to.  It was the lowest point in my life.  But it taught me so much.  The very first lesson I learnt: Money cannot solve everything but money gives one choices. 

No need to point fingers at anyone, but I was brought up with very little sense of security nor love from my blood family.  These greatly influenced my financial thinking.  It is now that I admit having enough money gave me a sense of control and security that I felt kind of filled the void I felt in childhood.

During those years, my sisters gave me an allowance but I also gave tuition, watched every cent I spent, sewed my own clothes, and eventually even took a tuition loan from a bank.  It was difficult to juggle school, money and family problems. But I learnt my second financial lesson here: You can survive on very little money. But you need to be creative, and work hard.  

Even during her "normal" days, my mother doesn't take care of us. We five sisters shared the housework, staying in a ground floor rented flat.  We had peeping toms, lizards and cockroaches visiting us regularly.  Even when my mother bought lunch for me, she would ask me to "reimburse" her.  I frankly was shocked when that happened. After all, I was her daughter and still schooling.  But then again, one cannot choose one's family.  So, I learnt my third important financial lesson in life: No one owes you a living, not even your family.  Do not assume.  

After my father passed away, he left behind about one to two thousand dollars for each child.  It was a huge sum of money to me then.  There were fees to pay, books to buy and of course my daily expenses to take care of. I don't know why but the first thing I thought of was to pay off my tuition loan.  I still remember the guy at the bank telling me it's ok to keep the loan because interest rates will be kept low until I graduate. I decided to go ahead and pay it off anyway.  I think that was one of the first financial decisions I made.  It felt good, like a huge burden was off my shoulders. Like, I can start afresh again.  So I learnt: Pay off loans when you can.  Of course, nowadays, I would take on a loan after evaluating the prevailing interest rate, the value of the item I use the loan for, as well as the loss of liquidity if I were to pay it off fully.

Before I shifted to stay with my family, I was a sickly child.  I fell sick so easily that the doctor knew me by name. After I moved in however, I rarely did so.  Why? Because I knew there won't be anyone to take care of me!  So, I took care of myself better, drinking lots of water whenever I felt a sore throat coming and self-medicating whenever possible.  I believed I only saw the doctor once in a year or so but the money spent still gave me a heartache.   So, again, a useful lesson here:  Our health is our greatest wealth.  Having no one to take care of you can make you stronger, not weaker.

In everything, there is a silver lining.  Somehow, you meet the nicest people when you genuinely need help. My very good friend, KT, who was also my classmate, would invite me to her place everyday after school. She was the only classmate who knew my family situation.  Her mom would cook lunch and we would both do our homework.  No questions were raised about my family.  I am eternally grateful to her and her mom.  Also, in uni, a friend lent me his computer so that I could complete my thesis without having to queue for computer usage time in the uni.  Many little acts of kindness came along whenever I was desperate.  They seemed random but on hindsight, I felt somehow things will always turn out better.  So, thus began my faith that one day, I could get myself out of this situation.  When the time is right, someone or something will help you provided that you yourself don't give up and commit to your goal. 

If not for my family background and the early years of deprivation, I wouldn't be able to garner enough faith that I could achieve financial freedom mainly on my husband's income.  I also wouldn't have given up my full-time job to spend time with my two boys.  Deep in my heart, my greatest desire was not to make lots and lots of money.  I wanted to make sure that I can create the family that I never had.  A bond so strong with my children that even without money, we can be happy.

Both my parents have passed on now.  As a parent myself, I am at peace, so at peace that I can share this on my blog for complete strangers to read.  Sorry to rant but every CNY, I will think a little more about those times.  I am forever thankful that I pulled through somehow and didn't end up as some delinquent, or dropped out of school.  One wrong step and things could have been very different.

There is indeed light at the end of the tunnel.


  1. Hi YP

    Great story. I am actually taken care by nanny all the way, without really staying with my parents before except maybe few weeks in my life during 1 or 2 of the school vacation before they started their own family.

    I totally feel you. This is also how i survived my poly days, with only $1.30 per day. Fortunately, your husband is financially capable. Fortunately for me too, my wife and I are doing well too.

    Happy for you and myself. Cheers.

    1. Thanks for sharing too. I believe there are quite a few people like us. We are not alone. And so happy for you that you are now living the life you want.

  2. Hi YP,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I'm sure it will help to encourage many.


    1. Not at all. It was kind of therapeutic for me too to write about this.

  3. Good to know things turn well for you!

    "When my father and my mother forsake me,
    Then the Lord will take care of me." Psalm 27:10

    1. Haha. I am no Christian but I know every religion will preach for persistence and believing in the goodness of the world.

  4. YP,


    Hole in heart plugged.

    At peace with one's past.

    It's people. It's relationships.

    1. You write so poetically haha. Time can really heal a lot of things.

  5. YP
    Thank you for your sharing. You just reminded many how fortunate they are and many including myself have taken things for granted.
    jia you!

    1. I have been fortunate, just that the good fortune came later in life. I think I am really lucky now.

  6. YP, I am a super silent reader that hardly pens, but your post is a really apt reminder on the importance of life and living. May you discover Him soon! Keep writing to inspire. I will keep reading.


    1. An Koh, thanks so much for taking the time to write. If this post can give just one person a little encouragement, I would be so gratified. Thanks for reading. I will definitely keep writing.

  7. You and Frugal Daddy indeed had very unpleasant but illustrious childhood.
    i am always marveled and touched by people like you who despite all the disadvantages of childhood can blossom into beautiful adulthood.
    Yet some children with all the trappings of an above average wealthy family don't do as well.
    i suppose (i believe) we are all wired differently is even more important
    than the influences of environments and social circumstances.
    Taken to the extreme, i suppose some people can prosper better in war time than peaceful time.
    Hitler comes to my mind.
    Who is yours?

    1. Hello there! Hitler oh my (but in a positive way!). A friend once said it's the Chinese equivalent of 时势造英雄, but I said when you are in a situation like that, just surviving day by day is an achievement. We don't want to be heroic in any way, but were forced to make choices and decisions at a very young age.


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