January 10, 2014

Going Against the Cultural Norms

These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about life, my role as a family bread-winner, and my family's future. I know I am not a perfect human being. But, I strive to be a better person each and every day.

One thing I have always noticed about me is that I often find myself against 'what is considered as normal' in the society. I often get labeled as 'un-something' in a lot of things. While I don't worry about labels, I worry that my energy often gets depleted in fighting this mis-perception. How can that be, I ask.

Here are some of the salient points about me that I think fuels this mis-perception.

I have always been a quiet and reserved person. Because I was quiet, I chose study over play. Even though I did extremely well in my high-school exams, not many people believed in me.

Many people in my extended family thought that I was not up to the task in college. Many thought I was making a huge mistake going away from the family. In reality, I managed to attend a very competitive, one of the top engineering colleges. I even managed to come to the US to pursue graduate school and now have two MS degrees.

I was raised by two frugal parents who never saw a lot of money in their lifetimes. As a result, I am a frugal person. Don't get me wrong, we spend money, and a lot of it. But, we spend it on things that matter the most to us and satisfy our needs (as opposed to our wants).

I do not own a personal smartphone. I have one provided by my company and we get by with that. We use Tracfones as our personal cell phone. We use Magic Jack as opposed to expensive landlines or Vonage. We do not subscribe to cable, but enjoy a ton of good programming on Amazon Prime. We shop online and shop only when there are sales or clearances. We do not go for branded items except when it makes sense. We drive two fully paid off decent cars. We save and invest regularly. But, many people don't see the big picture.

We bought a medium-sized, decently priced house. We're currently in the 10-year mortgage and are planning to pay it off in two years. Some people I know have bought bigger houses with small down payments and with 30-year mortgage. BUT, in exchange for a larger mortgage payment, we're securing our retirement as well as education for our kids.

I often worry about the long-term future of our family and our financial security as I believe you are mostly on your own. I base all my decisions with long-term in mind not just for us, but also for our kids. This means, I often end up saying no to things that drain money. People often say, 'are you going to take all your money with you when you die?'. When they say this, they are often hinting that I should not pay much attention to long-term and spend what I have on instant gratification.

As you can see, I often do things that are contrary to what many people do. I am fortunate to have a wife who shares my beliefs in a number of things I do. But, we often find ourselves into getting indirect pressures based on what other people we know do. So far, we have resisted these pressures. But, discussing things through takes times and energy. This is where I feel that going against the cultural norms is hard.

America is a great equalizer in my opinion. Regardless of who you are in your home country (rich, poor, politically-connected, or un-connected), when you come here everybody starts off on an equal footing. It gives you an opportunity to start fresh with a blank slate. It is up to you what to make of that opportunity.

America gives you the freedom to chart your own pathI have certainly chosen a path that I think is best suitable for me and family. I think this is what people mean when they say America stands for freedom. It is really about freedom of self-expression, freedom of religion, and freedom to pursue happiness through your own path.

If you are reading this post, you probably hold similar views (or not). Otherwise, you wouldn't be coming to this blog that is mostly focused on stuff that seems boring. Thanks for reading and please let me know your two cents.


  1. Nicely Written. I appreciate that you bringing it out. I also grew up in a remote village (in India), travelled 3 hours a day one way to go to a college(4 years) , by bike, 2 public bus to which comes only 3 times a day to our near by village, studied against so many opposition from family and other relatives. We also live the same way you as described. People around me thinking I always save and worry about money, We do not have Television in our house and no amazon prime. It works out great, actually our family does not missout anything. Hubby and son play outdoor games a lot and we do not find time to actually sit and watch Television.

  2. Monica,

    Kudos to you for going that extra mile and completing your degree against all odds. You must be feeling very proud of your achievements. Playing outdoors is actually a great thing for the entire family, and not just the little ones. I also spend a lot of time playing with my daughter outside. Thanks for your comments.

  3. First I would like to send a thank you note to you for such a nice and informative blog. I've read almost all the blogs and learning lot of things. This new year I have started with opening a vanguard account and putting a little money in Target retirement 2030 plan and set up weekly contribution as you mentioned. Our daughter is 2.5 years now and this one I would like to use as her college education. I am on H1B visa in a IT consulting job and my green card is in process (Hope to see EAD in few years). My wife is preparing for her degree study in local county college. This will keep her busy for next 2 years atleast. As I said I am in consulting and my employer doesn't contribute in 401k but he has opened a 401k a/c for us and I contribute 8% to my 401K. My 2013 YTD portfolio was 15% up and I balanced it once.

    A part from investments, I kind of not agreeing with you on savings by sacrificing TV. I understand TV and phones are killers but TV has lots of good packages like sports, cartoons, news etc. I have vonage and I hate the price but not sure how magic jack is to call india. Is it a unlimited service or we need to use calling card? Smart phones are also taking lots of money from contracts and I have to commute every day 3 hrs in public transit so I mostly use that time reading articles or news.

    Please keep sharing your opinions about investment or home buying or future outlook so that thousands like me your followers will get benefited. A big thank you to you and keep the good work !!

  4. Thanks for you comments and kind words. It sounds like you are on the right track by saving for your daughter as well as in your 401(K). Keep doing it and it will grow into a big fund.

    Regarding sacrifices, actually we watch TV, but through Amazon Prime. What we don't do is subscribe to Cable TV, which saves us roughly $40-60/month. As a matter of fact, we're replacing our old 27 inch HDTV with a bigger sized one this week. I agree we don't get sports on TV. But, since we're a growing family with two young kids, we just don't have time to watch sports at their scheduled times. Instead, I catch up on them at WatchEspn or through news.

    Through Magic Jack, you need a calling card to call India. It costs us $12 per month for 1000 minutes. We avoided Vonage to save equipment costs and contracts and our usage is not that high. I agree on the Smartphone. It is a lifesaver when you are outside home. I actually have a company provided iPhone, and hence don't need a personal one. My wife stays at home and has internet access, so she doesn't need one at the moment. We'll buy one for her this year, but we'll avoid expensive contracts.

    At the end of the day it is all about balance and priorities.

  5. Hi,
    I need a suggestion from you. I have a traditional 401k and a vanguard nonretirement mutual fund account. I am contributing to targen 2030 plan for my daughter's education in mutf account. I would like to what are the option I have to save for my future home buying fund? I am planning to buy one in next 2-3 yrs and I am looking for suitable ways where I can put my saving account fund and get a safe/moderate return in 2 yrs (atleast +10%). Do I need to open a ROTH IRA so that I wont pay tax @ withdrawal ? Do you know if I have to pay penalty or tax if I withdraw from nonretirement a/c? Another concern is some of the vanguard funds ask for lump sum min investment (10k for Index SP500 fund as example) and I dont want to invest that much initially and rather put in gradually. Can I do that in nonretirement a/c? Please share your vies and thanks in advance.

  6. Thanks for the questions. Here would be my suggestions.

    (1) It is really hard to tell which way markets will go in 2-3 years. Since you want to keep your money safe and earn some returns, you may want to research into Target Retirement Date 2020 fund. There is no guarantee that it will return 10+% because the repeat of 2013 may or may not happen going forward. But, it won't lose much if the markets suddenly go down in the 2-3 years. The initial investment required is only $1000.

    (2) Don't open Roth IRA because you would pay early withdrawal penalty if you had been investing in it in less than 5 years plus you can't take out earnings (only your contributions).

    (3) No, there is no penalty on withdrawing money from non-retirement mutual fund accounts. You will pay capital gains taxes for appreciated assets.

    Hope this helps.

  7. Hi BH,

    As I dont have any life insurance here in USA, (I have regular LIC and HDFC life back in India) I would like to buy one term policy. I don't smoke and in good health in mid 30s. Could you please suggest any good policy which will be reasonable in premium and professionally deals with clients? Thanks in advance. I have heard about AAA but their reviews are not good in terms of claim handling.

  8. Hi,

    Sorry for the delay in response. I actually am not familiar with life insurance policies in the US. My employer provides one (4X Pay), so I did not get one from the outside, although, I know it is not enough. I'll write a post when I complete my research.