Being an immigrant has its own challenges, and I was curious to know from other immigrants how they were dealing with their finances. I wanted to find out the unique challenges they were facing and how they dealt with them. This interview series is an attempt to share the stories of immigrants and how they manage their finances.
I am excited to present the 3rd guest of the interview series, Catherine Agopcan. Catherine or Cat is a writer/blogger focused on educating people on how consumption affects their bottom line through the tenets of minimalism, sustainability, and personal finance.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
1. Can you tell us about yourself? Please include any details you feel comfortable sharing about how long you’ve been in the US, what you do for a living and your income range.
My name is Catherine Agopcan. I’m a Financial Educator and Sustainability Advocate and blogger over at Sisters for Financial Independence and The Do Something Project. Prior to that, I spent over 10 years in the IT and advertising technology field working in the NYC area.
My family and I came to the US when I was 9 years old from the Philippines. I’ve now lived in New Jersey for over 25 years. My husband is also an immigrant from Turkey and our personal finances and money mindset have been heavily influenced by our move to the US.
2. What was your relationship with money during the early days of your life? How did it influence your finances?
I didn’t really have a strong concept about money growing up. In the Philippines, my parents had good paying, professional jobs. We had a decent size house, similar to everyone else on the block. I thought we lived fairly well. At some point, my mom came to the US first to pursue a nursing opportunity. She would send a box to the Philippines every so often of nice, new stuff: American toys, dresses, candy and we were the first house in the block to have Nintendo. That was a big deal back then especially in a small town in the Philippines.
When we moved to the US, I started hearing my parents talk about money, but it was all in whispers. Culturally, I believe Filipino parents want to shield their children from having to deal with money so it was rare that my parents would speak to us directly about bills and the cost of things.
My mom was a big personal finance reader though so she had a lot of books and magazines lying around about money. While she didn’t force us to read them, they were easy to pick up and that’s how I started learning more about personal finance from an early age, though I didn’t connect the dots and implement what I was reading until much later on.
3. Do you discuss money with your friends, family or colleagues? How do they react when you bring up the topic of money? Is this a taboo subject?
I’ve become a very big proponent of talking about money. I, myself, had to accept a lot of cultural and familial conditioning about money. My money mindset has greatly shifted over time. Today, I know there is nothing inherently bad about talking about money. It doesn’t make me more money hungry or greedy, just informed and focused on what I want my money to do for myself and my family. I think my immediate family and I are now very comfortable talking about money.
One of the reasons I started Sisters for Financial Independence was to encourage my younger sister to get comfortable with managing her money early on. I also wanted to get more women to become more comfortable talking about money so I started a local Meetup group where we meet monthly to discuss finances.
Money continues to be a taboo subject wherever you turn, but it’s something that we all need so I am glad to have found groups on Facebook where it’s ok to celebrate money wins like paying off debt.
4. What are some money mistakes you have committed? What lessons did you learn from it?
My biggest money mistake was going into credit card debt. Looking back, I can attribute this mistake to just getting caught up in lifestyle inflation. When I finally moved out of my parents home after grad school, I wanted to “live my life.” This meant getting my own apartment, going out and doing all of the typical stuff that someone in their early 20s would do. It was scary to have continuously racked up a balance on my credit card, but I also felt I could pay it tomorrow. After a few years, it amounted to over $10K, a number I was not prepared for. I knew I was being reckless, but I still felt like I could manage it. It was a hard lesson, but perhaps a lesson that I needed early on as it dictated how I viewed consumer debt moving forward.
5. What is your view on debt? Do you carry any form of debt? Has it ever been a source of stress in your life?
Today, I’m very reluctant to carry on debt. Whereas a few years ago, before learning of the FI movement, I might have thought that debt was a natural part of life, but I no longer believe that. The FI movement has taught me that you can do many things, still have a great life and build wealth without incurring too much debt. I also keep going back to a post by the Wealthy Accountant where he states: “When you are in debt the clock works against you. Every morning when you wake—weekends, holidays, sick days, birthdays and work days—you are already behind. The mortgage, credit card, car loan, et cetera, all tacked on interest the second after midnight. Long before you rolled out of bed and poured your first cup of coffee you need to work to pay the interest before you have money for food, clothing, shelter or entertainment. Saddled with debt the clock works against you.”
I was lucky with some of the opportunities I had in my 20s. My parents were a big proponent of not letting their kids accumulate too much student loan debt. My mother worked a lot of overtime hours as a nurse to ensure that at least a portion of our college tuition was paid out of pocket. I think this was part of her immigrant mentality. In the Philippines, there really isn’t such a thing as student loan debt. Semesters are paid in full and no one takes out loans. I remember stories of my grandmother making things and selling them so that she could save enough money to send my mother to nursing school. Additionally, I was able to work while in college which helped lower my loans and allowed me to save money. My first full-time employment after college paid for my Master’s degree which eliminated any grad school loans for me. Of course, it wasn’t all perfect, but it helped build a solid financial foundation.
Today, my husband and I have a mortgage and his grad school student loans, which we are actively paying off. We just paid off our car loan and have been celebrating that #paymentfreefeeling. It was our first purchase as a couple together and we are glad to have one less thing to worry about.
6. How is your money invested? Does being an immigrant have any influence on your investment decisions?
My money is invested in the stock market and in our property. I’m not sure if being an immigrant had any influence on my investment decisions. After over 25 years living in the US, I’ve gotten very familiar with the US money system so I think a lot of that has been ingrained in the way I manage money. In the same vein, I do still remember coming to America with only a few boxes of possessions and living in a one bedroom so I know I don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy. I’m getting back to those roots after spending many years as a consumer.
7. Do you have any specific money situation as an immigrant (e.g. supporting an aging parent or family overseas) that influences your finances?
I haven’t had to send money overseas myself, but have witnessed my parents do so for their aging parents and siblings. I think there’s a misconception sometimes when you do live in the US that you are automatically well off. While those that live in the US may earn more, the standard of living can also be so much more which eats up your earnings. My parents still struggled to make ends meet. I know it wasn’t always easy for them to pay bills, send 3 kids to college, etc., but they made it work.
I’m not sure how this dynamic will change as my parents age. That’s something to be discussed. Family support is important, but to what extent? I do feel like this is something that I would need to incorporate into my financial planning as I want to be able to support my family in a way that also doesn’t jeopardize our goals.
8. Are you aware of the FI or FIRE movement? If yes, where did you hear about it? Are you pursuing (or have you reached) financial independence?
I first heard of the FIRE movement last year when my sister introduced me to the ChooseFI podcast. When I started listening to their first few episodes, a lot of things they were talking about resonated with me. I didn’t realize it, but I was already doing a lot of these things to optimize my finances, but there just wasn’t a term for me to latch on to. I was saving for the concept of “retirement”, but retirement in the old sense of the word was too far in the distance for me to think about. I liked the term “financial independence” or FI instead because it gives way to more opportunities instead. FI to me just means a bit more freedom to pursue other things and it doesn’t necessarily mean I stop working. I don’t think I could ever see myself fully “retired” but I like the option of being able to reset.
I’m pursuing FI so that I can have time for my future children. I’m currently expecting our first child and I don’t want to have to decide between needing to work and wanting to spend time with them. One of the things I stress over at Sisters for FI is for young women to fully take advantage of making their money work for them and using that money to buy themselves time in the future.
9. What are some of the apps or tools you use to manage your finances?
I’m a big fan of the classic spreadsheet and Personal Capital. There’s something to be said about creating a spreadsheet unique to your finances where you can run multiple scenarios on payments, interest, etc. It feels empowering to know that you control where your money is going. I just use Google Sheets and it makes it accessible anywhere. Personal Capital has been a terrific go-to tool as well for a snapshot of all of the accounts. I use it often to see where my investments are overlapping and where I can optimize expense fees even more. And you can’t beat that it’s free.
10. Are there any specific books, blogs or podcasts on personal finance that you’d recommend to others?
I absolutely recommend the ChooseFI podcast and Journey to Launch podcast. ChooseFI covers a wide range of topics so even if one episode doesn’t resonate with you, I’m sure the next one will. I love Journey to Launch because it touches on a lot of women’s financial issues as well as wealth across races. I think one thing we all have to acknowledge is that we all don’t start from the same point. Immigrants specifically do have to build financial knowledge from the start and begin wealth accumulation as soon as possible. Many immigrants do start from 0 which means creating generational wealth takes more time and effort. Understanding this and knowing that we may need to take different actions regarding our money is important.
11. What money advice do you have for new immigrants who arrive in the US?
The biggest advice I would say for new immigrants arriving in the US is to be careful of lifestyle inflation. The US is very much entrenched in consumerism and it is easy to get caught up wanting the next, new shiny thing because credit cards, loans and going into debt make it possible.
On the other hand, though, there are also so many resources out there available to help you understand the US money system, whether that’s the basics of banking to the complexities of investing. The library is a great resource to pick up knowledge and network for free too.
For immigrants who think they’ll only be here temporarily, don’t discount taking advantage of opening up tax-advantaged accounts available to long-term visa holders. You never know if you’ll be back to the States or if your children will end up coming here and having some investments in US dollars can be very useful down the line.
12. How can people connect with you on social media?
Writer. Project Taker. Minimalism, Sustainability, and Personal Finance.
I’m more active on Instagram @thedosomethingprjct and you can find more personal finance related writing and resources over at sistersforfi.com
Are you a first-generation immigrant in the US? If yes, would you like to be part of this interview series? This series will focus on personal finance for first-generation immigrants and the unique challenges they face.
You can check out my page Immigrant Finances – Interview Series for more details on how to participate in this series.