Immigration and financial health

I recently came across an article about effects of mental health issues on financial health. The article brought up many good points, which are somewhat obvious and can be boiled down to this: mental health affects how one thinks and makes decisions. If those are done poorly, then financial decisions will most likely be done poorly as well (pun intended). If you can’t think straight and having a trouble with basic functioning, it would be much harder, if not impossible, to be able to make sound financial choices. So far, no surprises there.

What is interesting to me is that different research also points out the negative effect of immigration on mental health. So then, if you think about it, not only that immigrants are often in a disadvantaged position as it is (needing to start from scratch in a new country, learn new frameworks of operation, learn a new language, lose professional status, change their careers and what not), but the negative impact of immigration on their mental health will also negatively impact their financial situation. Immigrants often don’t know the rules in the new country and don’t have sufficient support networks or community to advise with or get support from. Plus let us not forget the strain that immigration puts on personal relationships as well. Add to all this a negative impact on mental health and it is easy to see why financial independence is doubly difficult to achieve for an immigrant.

Of course I am generalizing here, as every immigration story is different, but the overall patterns are still hard to ignore. Just think about these:

  • Moving to a more affluent (and usually more expensive) country to improve one’s financial situation, will often mean that whatever retirement investments that were made in the country of origin, will now not be accessible in the new country, plus often are meager in the new currency anyway. This means that an immigrant will start their retirement savings somewhere midlife, which as we know, is less than ideal.
  • Financial institutions and law systems in the new country are very often different than the ones in the home country. That means, different tax laws, different retirement plans, different credit card rules, and more. For a person busy adjusting to the new country, learning all these new rules of conduct, from scratch, is challenging.
  • Children who move to a new country with their parents, often end up in a situation where their parents are struggling and are busy establishing their lives. These parents will often not know the financial rules of the new country themselves, and thus aren’t really able to teach their children much in that regards. As a result, immigrant children don’t get enough education on the basics of financial institutions in their new country, which puts them in a disadvantage later in life. Of course, this lack of education is often the case for non-immigrants families as well.
  • A good number of people, often the spouses of the person immigrating for job or education, are not able to work in their former profession in the new country. Be it for reasons of language, licensure or their profession not being in demand (Think about an oil drilling engineer moving to a country with no oil drilling, as a good friend of mine did). These people’s financial situation immediately tanks, and they become completely financially dependent on their spouses.
  • Many immigrants lose their community and support networks they had back home. Even if they do embed themselves into a new ex-pat community, most of these connections and friendships will be new. Also, let’s not forget that not all people are good at making friends. New immigrants need to establish new support networks, find new trustworthy advisors and professionals. This takes time, is not easy and not everyone is good at that. As a results immigrants are more likely to fall prey to various “financial advisors” and helpers who take advantage of their unfamiliarity with the rules of the new country. 

These are just but a few points to consider when we think about how immigration impacts one’s financial situation. I’ve heard these over and over, from immigrants from the various walks of life. And I am not a stranger to this phenomena myself. When my family moved from Soviet Union to Israel, back in the 90’s my parents had zero understanding of how financial institutions of the West operate. They were raised on principles of Marxism and if you think about it – these vary dramatically from financial principles of Capitalism. My parents and I were raised on the notion Capitalism is evil and rotten. When they moved to Israel my parents had to start their financial positions completely from scratch, in their 40s, while also adjusting to the new country. They were maxed out just trying to survive, and keeping it together. Needless to say, I didn’t get any financial education from them at all. Absolutely zero. Fast forward to 2006, when I moved to US for my Masters degree, I paid all of my savings money from back home to fund my international student tuition. Even though I worked in a tech job since graduation from university, and was never not actually working, I had no money left at all after completing the MSc. My Israeli pension also stayed in Israel, where I can’t do with it much. As I quickly got married in the US, and my husband was the one taking care of finances, I never spent time learning about how financial institutions in the US operate. This was my fault, for sure, but this is all too common for immigrant spouses.

Making poor financial choices is not limited to immigrants only. Plenty of non-immigrants find themselves in financial messes and difficult financial situations. However, being an immigrant is a risk factor that increases the chances of getting oneself into that situation.

To come back to the effects of immigration on one’s financial wellbeing. Many immigrants also do fantastically well in their new countries, and prosper. This largely depends on personality, community and luck. Some people are naturally more outgoing, easier to make new connections, take opportunities, face challenges. These people will also be less likely to suffer from poor mental health. For the more vulnerable people however, immigrants who have no strong family ties, no community support or who already have sensitive mental health – they are at a higher risk of immigration having a negative impact onto their finances.


Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

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