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When you're the first financial success in a family of immigrants, here's what you can do to help out

Monse M., 33, with her mother Maria C. at her college graduation, wants to help her parents with financial literacy.
Source: Monse M.

Personal finance blogger Monse M., 33, wishes she'd understood earlier the importance of financial literacy.

Not for herself, but for her family.

She regrets not realizing sooner that she was on track to quickly make more than her parents, who were born in Mexico. "The earlier you begin to gain financial literacy, the sooner you could help your parents," said Monse, who is also a diversity brand strategy manager at a social media firm in Chicago.

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Monse, creator of blog Happy Money Happy Life, doesn't mean actual financial help but sharing valuable skills on navigating the world of saving, investing and making smart money choices.  

Family dynamics play a big role in how people talk to their parents about money. But the children of those who come to the U.S. for opportunity are more likely to be college-educated and earn more than their parents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Immigrants make up slightly more than a quarter of the U.S. population, or 90 million people. That figure includes their children born in the U.S.

"It can be difficult for a child who's done better than their parents to teach without offending them," said Bola Sokunbi, a certified financial education instructor and author of Clever Girl Finance.

Worrying about your parents' financial future adds even more stress. "Is the expectation you're going to take care of your parents?" asked Sokunbi. "Do you want to, or not want to do this?"

It's hard to tell members of an older generation what to do with their money, says Ivory Johnson, a certified financial planner and founder of Delancey Wealth Management in Washington, D.C. Instead, he says, you might use your own financial moves as an example.

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For Sokunbi, meanwhile, "it's personal."

As the child of Nigerian immigrants, she understands the importance her culture places on children taking care of their parents. "It doesn't matter how much your parents have or don't have," she said. "You would still make the offer to help."

Even if your parents turn down the assistance, it's still important to talk about it, she says.

The many firsts

Monse M. has several firsts to her credit. She was the first in her family to attend college and to work as a professional. The daughter of immigrants, she is a second-generation American, the first to be born in the U.S.

And she was the first to become competent in personal finance. After graduating college, Monse began working as a media buyer and quickly saw that the methods she used to manage a $25 million budget could work in her own life with far smaller amounts of money. It was the beginning of learning about compound interest, investing, the importance of saving and setting goals.

After a couple of years she was earning $50,000 — an amount her parents had never surpassed. As she picked up knowledge, she started helping her family, who weren't as sophisticated at navigating the system.

Have the conversations that strategically guide them. And not just your parents, but your older siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, younger cousins.
Monse M.
personal finance blogger

"I helped my sister sell our parents on the idea of [my sister] getting a job and putting 50% of every paycheck into an IRA," she said.

Her father thought he, too, had an IRA at his credit union. However, "I found out it was a savings account masked as an IRA," said Monse. "He said, 'It hasn't grown that much since I put [the money] in.'" Although her father's account had been billed as an IRA, his contributions had actually sat in cash and he'd missed out on the years of the bull market.

She also helped her parents learn what Social Security benefits they might one day be eligible for. Sometimes they pushed back. "Their pay world was very different," she said.

In fact, her family has in fact made sound financial decisions. They own their home, for instance, but gaps in their knowledge remain. Recently she helped her parents with their credit scores. "They had great credit but didn't know it," she said.

krisanapong detraphiphat | Moment | Getty Images

Monse's mother, Maria C., 53, is proud of her daughter — though she admits there were some arguments along the way, like when her daughter encouraged her to ditch credit cards. "At the beginning I got mad," said Maria, who lives in Aurora, Illinois. "I didn't like it."

When Maria argued that she'd be able to make the payments with her overtime pay, Monse just repeated, "If you don't need it, you don't buy it."

"She started doing my budget every year," Maria said. "Right now, I listen to her.

"I don't owe anything on my credit cards and my house is about to be paid off in four, five years."

Helping parents

Athena Lent (at age 2 with her dad, Rob) says if you want your parents to learn, don't do all the work for them.
Athena Lent

Athena Valentine Lent, 34, knows firsthand what happens if you don't grow up with a solid understanding of financial services. Her parents are first-generation Americans, and Lent had to figure out most of her financial life on her own.

"They didn't have good money habits established, so neither did I," said Lent, a student development manager for a nonprofit in Phoenix.

As a college freshman, she overdrew her checking account, which the bank closed. Then, her name was turned over to ChexSystems, a credit bureau for bank accounts, and she was unable to open a new account.

She began reading personal finance blogs and turning her finances around in her early 20s. She now has her own personal finance blog

Soon she wanted to help her dad (her mom died when Lent was in high school).

Creating that positive and open environment helped him open up. There's so much shame associated with personal finance.
Athena Lent
personal finance blogger

At the beginning, Lent's dad refused to talk. "I don't care," he said. "Just put me on the bookshelf by your mom." He was referring to an urn with her late mother's ashes.

Lent persisted and finally they did talk about the future and his finances. One thing Lent says made it possible: She emphasized that she didn't care if she was in charge of his estate or not — she just needed to know to make sure things were taken care of.

"Then he opened up and began talking about how to access his life insurance policy and other plans," she said.

"Creating that positive and open environment helped him open up," Lent added. "There's so much shame associated with personal finance."

Two directions

"Have the conversations that strategically guide them," Monse M. said. "And not just your parents, but your older siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, younger cousins."

That sharing of knowledge goes up, as well as down. "Reach back to the younger generation," she said.

You might also help coworkers: Maybe there's a 24-year-old at work Monse feels she can help. "But also I remind her to check in with her parents, her uncle."

Lead by example

Perhaps you've just spoken to a financial advisor about disability insurance, Johnson says. You might tell your parents what you learned, and that you initially were against it until the advisor explained how expensive things could get in case of an illness.

"Explain it in practical terms," Johnson said. "You have to understand the reasons parents are set in their ways — because [what they did] worked."

Talk it out

Make it a conversation and not a lesson, Sokunbi suggests. Make it compassionate by reminding them you want to make sure they're set up and making the right moves.

Avoid fighting. "If it's getting uncomfortable, pause," she said.

It is probably better to stick to one topic, such as having an emergency fund or avoiding phishing emails or text messages. "Pick one topic each week," she said.

Different worlds

Your parents' lack of familiarity with corporate and financial practices can strain communication.

Even the phrase "money meeting" could cause discomfort. "Meetings are from the corporate world," Monse M. said. "My mom works in a factory — she doesn't have meetings."

Learn, learn, learn

REB Images/Getty Images

Break down financial concepts in terms they'll understand.

Lent says her dad may not immediately understand what an exchange-traded fund is, or an index fund, but he knows companies like Apple. Explain what it means to invest in a company by buying stock. "Don't dumb it down, but put it in the simplest way possible," she said.

Find trusted sources

"Sometimes telling stories works," Johnson said. You might try telling them about a friend's parents who made some financial decision. This could resonate even better if they're from the same country, Johnson says.

Parents might be willing to listen to the minister or pastor of their church, Johnson says.

"In a lot of countries, [older people] don't listen to kids," Johnson said. "That's an American thing." His Cuban-born mother, he says, is quick to challenge him.

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Try a book

If your parents like to read or listen to audiobooks, consider giving them a financial book, Sokunbi says. She recommends "Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk" by Cameron Huddleston for having financial conversations.

Teach them to fish

When you feel overwhelmed at trying to explain something, it might seem easier to just say, "I'm going to take care of this for you," and it may be expected in some families, Lent says. "But if you are trying to teach your parents, it's not a good thing to do."

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