Paying For Your Parents

My Thai friend Joy, who lives in L.A., recently told me that in many Asian cultures, it’s typical to honor your parents by giving them money and buying them nice gifts (even a car!) once you start working yourself. “Many of our American friends are shocked by this,” says Joy, “but lots of my first-generation Asian friends continue the tradition.” Here, I asked her about it…

Here are Joy‘s thoughts:

What my husband and I give to our parents: We help support our parents financially every month. We also make sure to pay for dinner when we go out together, and we cover their flights any time they come to visit us in L.A. (all our parents live in Philly). Some of our Asian friends also pay the mortgage on their parents’ houses, cover their car payments, or help them pay off credit card debt.

The first paycheck: My husband is Korean; and in his culture, you’re expected to give your first paycheck to your parents. Bob went to med school and had a long residency, so he wasn’t able to do that until he started his first job at 32. Most people do it in their early twenties with their first job out of college, but he wanted to wait.

Making it work: When we got married in our late twenties, Bob was in med school, and I had just started my business. So we were living off very little and racking up credit card debt like crazy. We only recently paid off all that debt, so now we’re finally at a place where we can help our parents the way we want to. People might assume, “Oh my gosh, they must be doing do well that they can give money to their parents.” But we allow for it. While we certainly have our own bills to pay and young family to raise, taking care of our parents financially is something that we incorporate into our financial decision making. We’re happy to work harder and take extra side jobs. When we work hard for “our families,” that includes our parents, too.

Buying a car and bed: We recently went home to Philly, and my dad’s car had just broken down for the second time in just a few months. It had 200,000 miles and was almost ten years old. Picturing my dad breaking down in the middle of nowhere broke my heart. Bob and I looked at each other and immediately knew we had to help him have a safe car. So we decided that night to buy my dad a new one. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a solid car that could take him to and from work.

Then, we visited Bob’s parents house for the first time in years. His parents are in their sixties, and they were sleeping on the small double bed that Bob had slept on throughout his childhood. We asked why they were using that old bed, and they’re like, “Oh, we’re fine. We’re used to it!” We told them they needed to sleep on something comfortable and good for their backs, not a thirty-year-old mattress! We were happy to help them buy one.

Our parents: Our parents are all immigrants, so they’re used to living simply and “dealing with” things. But they worked so hard coming to this country with just a few hundred dollars, they deserve sleep in a good bed and drive a safe car! Our parents are self-employed (they all work in the restaurant industry), so they don’t have typical retirement plans or pensions or 401(k)s. The ways we choose to help provide for them isn’t a way to spoil them, but instead to help make their lives a little easier.

Why we do it: When we were young, our parents took care of us—financially, emotionally and physically. But now, it’s time for us to take care of them. Our parents don’t ask for it. In fact, they often offer to pay for things (like dinner), but we always insist. While we jokingly call it “parent tax,” it’s something we’re happy to do to honor our parents. We’re trying to say, “I finally made it, now let me thank you for helping me get there.”

Our daughter: We don’t expect our daughter, Ruby, to do this for us when she grows up. Granted, we want her to respect us as her parents, but as Asian-Americans who grew up in this country, we’re following a much more traditional American path with savings accounts and retirement plans. So, we don’t think we’ll need help when she’s older. It will be interesting to see how this tradition evolves as we get more Americanized and if Asian-American kids will continue to honor their parents in this way or if it will change into something else as we change and evolve culturally.

Thank you so much, Joy! I’m curious, you guys: Do you ever pay for your parents when you go out to dinner? Or for their flights to see you? Or anything like that? Do they typically cover you? Or are your finances totally separate? I’d love to hear…

P.S. More Motherhood Monday posts, if you’re in a reading mood…

(Photos—from childhood and nowadays—courtesy of Joy, who writes the blog Oh Joy! and just published the book Blog, Inc.)

  1. Karena says...

    Love this! We’re Hispanic & our parents are also immigrants so we hold these same values. My dad’s company was sold, 3 years before he was due to retire, and for my brothers and me helping them monthly was a no brainer. We also do little things like adding them to our phone bill & They never pay when we go to dinner. if they ever have a big expense my brothers and me always take care of it. It took my husband a few years to understand this about our culture, but now he’s 100% on board & is even himself always looking for ways in our budget to help them. To us, it’s small compared to everything they’ve sacrificed for us to have a better life.

  2. Luna says...

    I’m a Polynesian and we do this too. My hubby is a Kiwi Caucasian and doesn’t do this.

    As Polynesian, our elders care for & teach us. As they get older, we return these actions without expectations. If not physically, then financially, especially in a foreign country.

    If we lived in my Country, my Husband would work in the Capital City (because $$ is still needed) and I would look after our kids, my Parents & our land (home duties, property maintenance & plantation).

    I no longer look after my Mum financially, as the eldest. This is now my younger siblings shared duty. Yes, I bought my Mum a car, twice. Yes, I paid for flights & trips. Yes, I paid for bills & groceries. Yes, I paid for debt. My Mum is an excellent saver & very mindful of her spending.

    I did it because I was the first to graduate High School & had a white-collar job, not one expected of our people. I studied hard because she wanted the best education even though it meant limited finances. I did these things because my Mum made sacrifices much bigger than money.

    My Mum’s firstborn, a daughter died back in the Islands waiting for her papers to join us. My Mum couldn’t afford to leave the Country to bury her & back in the 1980’s her letter arrived a week after her daughter’s burial, two weeks after she died. She carried on and provided for her next 3 children working 2 jobs and limited English, never forgetting our beloved sister, her firstborn. She also sent money home to her Parents, even though her siblings, whom she sponsored for immigration, had better jobs & didn’t do this.

    Like my Mum said, once your Parents are gone, you won’t be burdened with our worries and hopes. Money is so little compared to time with them.

  3. J says...

    I know this is an old post, but, my parents are Chinese (I’m Chinese American) and while they’ve lived in the US for over 35 years and are citizens, there are still lots of aspects of traditional Chinese culture that they hold dear. Respecting your parents and occasionally treating them, is something that they really love and appreciate.

    My husband travels quite a bit for work – long-haul. Because of this, he collects frequent flyer miles and he ALWAYS spends them on flights for my parents to come visit us in London, or he’ll use his upgrade vouchers to bump them up to Business. It’s not something I ever suggested to him, but he has always gone out of his way to show them love and respect (and they adore him for it), which always makes my heart swell.

    • sarah says...

      That’s so lovely!

    • Luna says...

      Isn’t it a special feeling when your other half does shows he cares about the people you love, your Parents? I am honoured my Hubby does the same.

  4. Bank of Mum and Dad says...

    In a word, no!
    My parents are very well off, they don’t need our help and still contribute to paying a lot of things for me and my 3 siblings. I’m the eldest at 29 and my youngest brother is 18. I often feel guilty about this and would love to 1) be less dependant on them 2) treat them to things but it’s just not realistic.
    My husband and I earn very little and if I didn’t let the parents pay we would miss out on things such as family trips and meals out. My parents would prefer to enjoy these in expensive places and pick up the bill for the family than have to go somewhere cheap so we can all chip in. We know they can afford it, so we let them.

    For example typically we have a family holiday each year where my parents will pay for everything (flights, accommodation, meals, activities) for all their children and our partners (so 10 of us!). On those occasion the ‘kids’ club together to pay for a meal or two during the trip.

    At home we eat out regularly and when any or all of us go to a restaurant with them, my parents will pay. My husband and I live in a different country to the rest of my family (but still in Europe so not far) and my parents will often pay for our flights to come visit.
    If I go shopping with my mum she will buy me clothes that I could not afford myself.
    My husband does not feel uncomfortable about these arrangements as it is reciprocal for me on his side of the family. My younger brothers’ new partners usually start off trying to pay their share and are constantly batted away.
    When we want to buy a house, my parents will give us a lump sum for the deposit.
    Truth be told I (and all 3 of my adult siblings) actually have credit cards on my parent’s account which they pay off each month. We have had these since the age of 16 for ’emergencies’ as all of us, including my parents, travel alot. In reality when we were younger we used them for anything we wanted (restaurants, flights, clothes) but couldn’t afford (we also had monthly allowances, mine stopped age 26 when I finished being a student). As we’ve gotten older my parents have had regular conversations with us about not using those credit cards too much. Now as a ‘real’ adult I really use it only for ’emergencies’ (eg. I left my debit card in my other bag and I’m at the supermarket checkout) or when my mum tells me too (eg. oh come and put the flights on your card). We do not pay that money back.

    Realistically I only imagine this situation changing once my dad retires and will no longer be able to afford our lifestyle as a family. I think all our travel and eating out will be scaled back and at that point the children will be better able to make contributions.

    • Bank of Mum and Dad says...

      I should add for some context that we are not an immigrant family.

    • Huh says...

      Your parents are very generous. Are you planning to do the same for your kids?

    • Anon says...

      I know. I would love to, but on our current path neither my husband nor I will be able to afford it. I think it is something I will struggle with when the time comes. Most likely I will feel very guilty that I cannot afford the same privileges for my children, although my parents are also very generous with their existing grandchildren!

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  7. Thank you so much for sharing.

    I love the sentiment and agree wholeheartedly.

    I’m currently just a student so I can only do these things sparingly, but I still manage because I got some inheritance. I took my mom out for dinner and got her almost anything she wanted (she insisted on paying for her Margarita) and it felt so good to reciprocate the way she’s taken care of me and my siblings.

  8. I love the sentiment as well. Currently I’m just a student, but I got some inheritance from my grandmother’s passing, and I’ve realized how hard my mom works to take care of my siblings and I, so I’ve taken her out to dinner.

    I want to be able to do that more often and other things for my parents as well. Even if I’ll be a teacher, I’m sure I’ll be able to squirrel some money away for both myself and them.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  9. JB says...

    I’m a Korean raised in Canada. My parents never told or taught me anything about helping them out when I got older. It was just something that naturally came to me. I gave them my very first paycheck and I buy them gifts every so often for no real reason and I will continue to do so. I’ll be buying an iPhone 6 for my mom next year.

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  11. It’s a lovely story of how both you and your husband are supporting your parents. I’m from Germany where it’s not a tradition to take care financially of your parents. Sadly, it’s not even common to live with your parents once they get older.
    I’m in my late 20’s, just graduated from university and haven’t found a position in my type of trade yet so I am still entirely dependent on my parents.
    While my parents have saved money on their own and are relatively well-funded by the governmental pension, I still would love to make their lives easier by paying my share of the living expenses. What is more, it is crazy that my parents are paying for my social insurances which are at the same level of a person who’s fully employed. In Germany, you do this to be secured in case you’d get sick and for when you’ll retire.
    What I do for my parents since 2005 though, is to do all the shopping with my mom since my dad had a cerebral bleeding and became partly paralyzed as a result. Additionally, my brother and I are helping my parents with the chores. But as my dad’s still very mobile and has no issue with speaking, he wants to take care of the household as well. He’s still good at finances so he does all this stuff, too.
    What I learned about my father being disabled and getting older is that it’s vital to still have a mind demaning occupation otherwise your brain degredades. When he was in a rehab center for stroke and heart attack patients, it was devastating because he wasn’t in a stimulating environment. The nurses would leave all the patients on their own for many many hours. It was totally boring there, a sombre atmosphere. And that’s because we think that old people should stay among themselves without any youthful input and challenges in their daily lives. That’s catastrophe!

    Before my father became paralyzed, I dreamt of living with my parents and my newly founded family in a big house together but I gave up on that when reality striked back. I don’t think it’s realistic anymore. First of all, my parents wouldn’t want to live in another house because they don’t want to lose their home anymore and second I need to learn to become more independent and earn money on my own.
    After all, I think it’s important to remain realistic and adjust to whatever situation you’re facing. It’s not possible for everyone to support their parents financially and sometimes it’s not even necessary because it doesn’t make sense to go broke for your parents if they have a lot of money.
    In my opinion, it’s rather the small things that count. For each parent there’s something else that makes her or him happy.

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  13. S. says...

    Hispanic-American here. I love this article because we have a similar cultural sentiment about this, I think. I too am the child of immigrant parents and I am fortunate to be able to help my parents even if they don’t ask or need it. Once I got my first “real” (read: well-paid) job I helped my dad get a decent car so he could replace his old car that was starting to fail. I’ve helped my parents do upgrades on their house, and I pay for the occasional dinner out. It just feels nice to be able to give back a little of what my parents did for me and contribute so they can have a nicer life.

    I am not sure that I would expect my children to do this for me (given that I hopefully will have a decent or at least better retirement), but I think I would like to raise them in a way that they’d WANT to, out of appreciation or love?

  14. It pays a lot! Being a parent is a wonderful gift. I agree with you. And thanks for the inspiration you have shared to us, especially to me. My spider vein removal clinic appreciates this so much. Keep blogging and keep sharing.

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  16. This post inspired me to pay off one of my dad’s credit card bills and send a check to my mom. I’m 24 and still have debt of my own but I was moved by this tradition. Thank you for sharing!

  17. them an iPhone and taking on the bill so we can better communicate… this posting sealed my decision. I can’t wait to say thank you to my Mom and Dad this way. Apple iPhone

  18. My Dad is retiring this November and I have considered buying them an iPhone and taking on the bill so we can better communicate… this posting sealed my decision. I can’t wait to say thank you to my Mom and Dad this way. Cheers everyone. for the iPhone

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  21. Touching post. Thank you for sharing.

    Since my grandparents raised me and I consider them my parents, I would fly out to spend 7 to 10 days caring for them each month (my grandmother had Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and my grandfather has numerous health issues). I don’t know if growing up with my grandmother’s Japanese heritage influenced my decision at all or if they’re just really neat people and I liked hanging out with them. In between visits, I send my grandfather care packages of his favorite goodies from Trader Joe’s because getting mail makes his day. :)

    However, I do the barest minimum for my mom and wouldn’t have walked across the street to pour water on my father if he were on fire. I figure since none of them put much effort into parenting, they don’t deserve my extra effort. Same with my in-laws. They don’t hesitate to passive-aggressively ask for stuff but I don’t pay attention.

  22. I love this post! I grew up with the same value. My mom is Indonesian and my dad is Japanese. Even they never ask for it but I would like to give back as my thank you and grateful to have such an amazing parents :)


  23. I am Indian but live in the States. I was raised in a society where we were our parents worlds and as we got older we want to do for them what they did for us! I cannot wait to be able to spoil my mother and make sure she has everything she needs, without even thinking of it. It is not a burden but just the most rewarding thing to be able to do.

  24. I’m from the Philippines and this is our culture as well. I gave my first paycheck to my parents too! Now I pay for some bills and groceries to help out around the house :) I don’t have a husband and a child so I don’t really have anyone to spend for so it all works out :)

  25. I’m Italian and my parents wont let me pay for anything. Nothing. Even today my mum buys my baby’s milk powder and fills my fridge (and cooks & cleans) and I’m married, working and 32! They’ve even taken early retirement to look after my son when I go back to work. My British husband knows my family so well (see them practically every day!) and understands Italian culture although I think he only half jokes when he says our son will still be living at home in his 40s :)

  26. This is such a great post. Thanks for sharing. My parents are also immigrants (and I myself a 1.5 Korean American – came to the US at the age of 7) and it was touching to see this post and how as children of immigrants or as young kids who came to the US at a young age, still uphold traditions or do little things to recognize the sacrifices our parents made. went into non-profit work right after college and didn’t make a lot for a living but always wanted to give them my first paycheck (or buy them undergarments!) — but it was only after I got older, got married and was making better pay that I was able to save money for my parents every month to give to them at the end of the year. My husband though had been providing monthly for his mother ever since his first job. It’s one of the traits that made me fall in love with him.

  27. Yes, I (a Korean-American) used to support my mom because she is a widow and had raised my sister and me on her own. Unfortunately, there have been issues…because I was supporting her, she began to become careless with her ways of spending. Therefore, I had to recently stop the financial support, but I would definitely want to again, if my mom stopped her careless spending habits (they were a bit outrageous)! (My husband and I have tried talking to her, but it didn’t work.)

    Also, in extreme cases in Korea, there have been times where Korean actors/actresses committed suicide because of family debt issues. In one case, a Korean actress (Lee, Eun-joo) suffered from depression because she had taken provocative roles that had nudity and such. South Korean newspapers had written that she had taken the roles due to pressure of her management company, but also speculated she took the roles to help repay her mother’s debt (it was described to be a “life time worth of debt”).