Living in the United States, we have become comfortable with our financial system of easy credit and saving in a financial institution. Interestingly, we often never stop to think where this mentality comes from and do people from different cultures handle money like we do. It turns out that people around the world see the concept of money very differently.
For example, money and possessions in the Tongan culture are often shared. Anga fakatonga emphasizes most highly the importance of family, but also stresses the importance of community. During early times on the island, food was seen as a form of wealth. Since there was no refrigeration the cultural norm was to share the food or else it would go to waste.
Most Tongan people that reside in the United States today still practice this custom with modifications. Since money is important, Tongans will often use what wealth they have to meet their basic needs and give the rest away to community members needing assistance. Whether it is a mortgage payment or a sudden medical expense, the reason is irrelevant. If there is a financially-troubled friend in the neighborhood, the Tongan community often comes together, combining their wealth to help that friend. Saving money then becomes an uncommon practice.
Another example of foreign money customs comes from across the Pacific Ocean to China. Saving money to the Chinese is almost seen as a hobby. This can be traced back to the Dao De Jing, a classic Chinese text that states, “The three greatest treasures one can have are love, frugality, and generosity.”
When a child’s birthday arrives, they are not given plastic trinkets, video games, and new bicycles such as here in America, but instead money is presented beautifully in red envelopes. The child will often save most, if not all the money, for another time. Purchasing everything with cash is also seen as a social norm in China and in other Asian countries.
In Japan it is considered impolite to discuss money. There are cultural and historic reasons for not discussing money. Generally, according to Confucius, while everyone wishes to seek wealth and fame he teaches that these traits tend to demoralize people. Well-being should come from the opportunity to be humble rather than luxurious.
The University of Utah has a diverse population with students coming from all over the globe. It can be a challenge to teach about budgeting, saving, investing, debt control, or how to build a good credit report without stepping on the importance of cultural values to individuals. It feels disrespectful to urge someone from their customs, yet living in the United States these customs may not coincide with how finances operate here.
We worked with a student from western Africa who owed money on last year’s rent. He believed that once he didn’t need his housing any longer, he was free to walk away from his lease. In his national homeland that is how contracts, or the lack of a formal contractual agreement, functioned. There was another student who came to the University from China and purchased an auto with cash. At the time of the purchase, proof of insurance was not needed because there was no loan involved. The student didn’t know that having car insurance is the law here and shortly after his purchase, he was in an accident. He incurred a heavy fine and, of course, the loss of his property.
The South Pacific idea of charity and compassion to ones’ neighbors is admirable, as is the Chinese ethic of savings. If a culture can get children excited about holding onto money, perhaps they have a winning formula. But the complexities and pressures of living in the United States can take their toll on foreign students. Our goal at the Personal Money Management Center is to be sensitive to these cultural differences, while teaching how to be money-wise. We try to come to a “cultural compromise” where the student is respected while we educate about being successful. We have decided that while we can assist students with taking the right direction, we also can learn much from listening about others’ beliefs, values, and financial habits.