Alison Singh Gee’s memoir, “Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince, and the Search for Home,” begins in Hong Kong, where Gee is living luxuriously as an expat journalist. She doesn’t think twice about spending money on fancy artwork, pricey dinners or designer shoes, and that’s partly because her lifestyle is funded by her wealthy boyfriend. Soon, though, she breaks up with that boyfriend, meets her future husband and realizes she has to seriously rethink her spending habits.
Almost immediately, she replaces cab rides with bus fare, restaurants with cooking and shopping sprees with walks. She decides that she needs to live within her means in order to build the life she wants with her new beau, a cash-poor Indian prince whose family owns Mokimpur, a palace in desperate need of repairs. She finds the strength, and discipline, to completely overhaul her relationship with money.
Today, Gee lives with her husband and their daughter in Los Angeles, where she writes and teaches. In addition to successfully managing her and her family’s finances, she’s also focused on passing on a healthy money mindset to her daughter. She shared seven lessons from her own transformation from big spender to responsible sale shopper:
1. Reflect on your earliest money memory.
Gee says the most important financial exercise she ever did came from a Suze Orman book. Orman recommends writing down your first memory of money, something Gee and her husband, Ajay, both did. “[Ajay]’s relationship with money was really complicated. He came to Hong Kong saying, ‘People with money are bad, money makes you evil,’” Gee recalls.
In his money memory, he remembered taking a nap with his mother one day as a young boy, when his mother found a pouch of rupees near him and accused him of stealing. When he tried to explain that it was his birthday money, she didn’t believe him. “From there, we realized where his negative ideas of money came from, Gee says.
Her own memory was of having lunch with her father, younger brother and grandfather. “Suddenly, my father erupted. He almost turned over a table and said, ‘What about my daughters? My daughters deserve something, too.’ He grabbed us by the hand and we stormed out,” says Gee, who was about 6 years old at the time. Later, she learned that her grandfather, a very wealthy man, had said he was not going to give his granddaughters any inheritance.
As a result, Gee said to herself, “I’m never going to let money be an issue for me. I’m above money; it’s just going to appear in my life. I’m not going to plan for it because that’s what mean people do.” Unlocking that memory enabled her to understand the route of her tendency to overspend and avoid budgeting, she says.
2. Explore your family’s money legacy.
When Gee was growing up, her family was exposed to money extremes. “We had really lean years, but all of our cousins were really wealthy. With a twist of fate, that could have been me; I knew my grandfather was really rich, and I felt that was who I was, too,” she says. “When we grew up, sometimes there was a lot of money, and my dad would blow it on a fancy meal with surf and turf, and other times, they would say, ‘Sorry, we can’t get you shoes right now.’”
Recognizing that children inherit a financial point of view from their parents, Gee says she takes care to give her own daughter a sense of balance. “I’ve been really conscious about my daughter and her perspective on money: always feeling responsible and having a sense of abundance. Even if we don’t have money for something, maybe what we’re really after is a richness of experience and family life, Gee says. That might mean having a long, relaxing meal at home followed by a movie night, as opposed to dropping hundreds at a popular restaurant.
3. Know that change can be painful.
When Gee met her future husband and she realized that making a life with him meant she wasn’t going to marry a wealthy man, it was a difficult transition. “I’d always been told by my family, ‘Marry rich,’ but that wasn’t working for me," she says. "When I met Ajay, I chose the connection and adventures … I had to confront that it wasn’t going to be easy any more. It was tremendously painful,” she says.
Gee worked to adjust her own attitude toward money, to learn how to scale back and budget and to recalibrate her values. Watching her own mother learn to earn and manage her money after her father was no longer able to gave her inspiration. “That’s when the warrior in me appeared,” she says.
4. Find pleasurable activities that don’t carry a price tag.
Gee and her future husband started taking ferries to outlying islands surrounding Hong Kong on the weekends, and enjoying restaurants popular with locals, instead of the fancy expat ones. “I was just as happy spending $2 on a mini bus and $10 on an outdoor meal … It was revelatory,” she says.
5. Get paid what you’re worth.
When Gee left Hong Kong and moved back to Los Angeles, she found a job at People magazine. “I wasn’t excited about working so hard on a small salary, so I talked to other journalist friends, and learned the going rate was much more [than I had thought], so I asked for a salary at a rate that I felt valued myself. … I was making quite a pretty penny. That’s when I started to feel financially so powerful. I wasn’t a money machine, but I was viable as a breadwinner. Now, whenever I feel down about finances, I say, ‘Think of yourself as money machine,’” she says.
6. Buy fewer, but better, things.
“I believe in having fewer but better things. Investing in a house adds to our sense of luxury in everyday life. Right now I’m squirreling money away for a major renovation. …I’m always shopping on sale, and I don’t pay retail. I mostly shop Anthropologie but on sale. Same with my daughter; she wears J.Crew, but it’s all on sale. That’s how I go about affording luxury,” she explains.
7. Turn your goals into a game.
Gee says no matter where you start, you can always take little steps toward being financially sound and successful, and making the process a game can help. “Maybe I want $10,000 in the bank. What am I willing to give up? One of my friends writes down exactly how much she spends each day. If you have a respectful relationship with money, it’s amazing how much less anxiety you feel, and how much more productive you can be,” Gee says, adding, “The first step is to be brave and take a good look at your relationship with money, and set some goals.”