Category Archives: Family

How Not To Retire By 40 – Part II: An Ode To Emergency Fund

This post was included in Carnival of Personal Finance #299: The March Break Edition as one of  the Editor’s Picks!

Family History

I was raised by my mother and my grandmother. An emergency fund was non-existent in our family. I don’t think that growing up I even understood what it means. Neither my grandmother nor my mother discussed family financial matters with me. Even when I graduated from the University and got my first job, no one ever told me: save up Aloysa, spend less than you make, think about retirement.

Our family never had savings, and in case of an emergency my mother or grandmother would ask friends to loan them badly needed money. Somehow their friends always would have money to loan… till the payday.

My mother and grandmother were teachers. Teachers were not paid very well in the Soviet Union, and it was not easy to run a household full of women. In fact, I am not sure anyone was paid well back then unless they belonged to the communist party, KGB or worked in the defense ministry. However, there were always people (like friends of my mother’s) who always managed to have savings.

Historical Background

Ironically, it was considered shameful to be rich in the USSR (the rule never was applied to the communist party members.) People who were better off were frowned upon and could easily become a subject of KGB investigations. Those people had to hide their wealth and money. Sometimes I wonder if habits of hiding money in socks, pots, books and under mattress came from that time.

The Revolution of 1917 that eventually led to the creation of the Soviet Union was built on the hatred  (as so many other revolutions in the world) of rich and powerful. I know it is a pretty simplistic and unsophisticated way to look at it (there was so much more to the causes of the Revolution than that), but I don’t want to go into a detailed history lesson. This post is not about that.


We lived from paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes we wouldn’t manage even that. Thankfully, there was no credit system in the Soviet Union. It scares me to think what would happen to the majority of people if there would have been one. Friends who were a little richer, a little better off were our lifelines. We could not build any emergency fund because there was nothing to build it from.

It was one of my friends here, in the US, who told me once that it was always important to have some savings build up because “you never know what life will throw in your way.” She was also the one who introduced me to the notion of “spending less than you make.” She was very frugal. Sometimes to the point of being plainly cheap. But there was a  good reason for that. She was building her savings account because she was preparing to run away from her abusive husband. She was a powerful saver who managed to put away enough money to get herself out of the marriage by simply cleaning houses twice a week. 


It took me years to realize how important an emergency fund is in one’s life. Without it, you sink deeper and deeper into debt. Without it, you are not a free person to live your life. You are a slave to circumstances. I’ve been one for years and believe me, it is not a pretty picture.

Credit cards, personal loans, banks let you down, but emergency fund never does. Emergency fund is stronger than anything you can ever accumulate. It is stronger than time (depending where you keep it.)

Its strength holds you together when nothing else can.

My Life Without Christmas

We did not celebrate Christmas in the Soviet Union. It all started with the revolution. Vladimir Lenin eliminated Christmas. Under Stalin‘s regime the Christmas tree was outlawed. This was always difficult for me to imagine – December with no Christmas spirit and no tree. But understandably, Christmas had no place in the atheist society.

Later, Stalin lifted his ban on Christmas tree and declared the New Year’s a national holiday which eventually became one of the biggest holiday’s of the year.

In fact, the New Year was what Christmas has become in the Western world –  a time for family to gather together and celebrate, share gifts and food. The attributes of Christmas such as a lighted tree and gifts, were assigned to New Year’s Eve. So, essentially it was a sort of substitute Christmas stripped of all Christmas meaning.

I know for sure that a lot of people still celebrated Christmas even when Christmas was outlawed. Except that these celebrations were not public, in the open but underground, in the dark, not talking about it to anyone, constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure no one knew.

Of course we had Santa Clause. But our Santa Clause was called Grandfather Frost (somewhat a direct translation from Russian). He would come from Siberia and bring gifts to us on New Year’s Eve. Grandfather Frost also wore a long beard and a red hat. He always would be accompanied by a beautiful Snow Maiden who would help him to distribute gifts to children. Essentially, you could get one gift per child (not to go overboard and spoil a future humble and modest communist generation.)

Ironically, it was December in 1991 when the Soviet Union ended its existence. Gorbachev resigned on Christmas day and the Soviet Union was officially dissolved the next day. In Lithuania, because it is a Catholic country, we finally were able to celebrate Christmas in December. Russia (because it is a Russian Orthodox country that follows a Julian calendar) started to celebrate Christmas again in January.

I ended up having a few Christmas celebrations: Christmas in December with one part of my family and some of my Lithuanian friends, and later, in January, with another part of my family and Russian friends. I think I replenished all uncelebrated Christmases then.

New Year’s Eve was a national family holiday for many, many years. It was my favorite holiday. As a kid, and later as a grown-up, I always got excited about New Year’s. I love Christmas too. I think I like the spirit of Christmas in spite of its huge consumerism, high expectations, overspending and TV and radio commercials that drive me crazy. But somehow, even now, I always look forward to New Year’s Eve.

Old habits die hard, I guess.

How I Got Overeducated and Loaded with Debt

My first culture shock was when I got admitted to an American University. It was not an Ivy League school, not a private college. I got admitted to a small town University with a good name and decent reputation. I came as a foreign student on a scholarship. The scholarship that I was awarded barely covered half of the cost of the tuition. It did not cover textbooks. As a foreign full-time student my tuition was a little over $4,500. The scholarship was a little bit under $1,500. The first year in school my stepfather generously covered the difference. He also bought me the textbooks.

First time I saw the prices of the textbooks and supplemental study guides I needed for my courses, I became flabbergasted. Scattered thoughts raced through my mind. Who in the world could afford to pay the full price of the tuition and, on a top of that, throw in an additional $400-500 for the textbooks? That day, standing in the middle of the bookstore, I understood those people who said that education was not important in order to succeed in life. I also realized why I saw a lot of students from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait on the University’s campus.

Back home I graduated from the local University with a Master’s degree in Library Science and Information Technology (I still don‘t understand why it was called Information Technology as we never had any computers). I never had to pay a penny for education or for the textbooks. Free education was one of the greatest perks living in the former Soviet Union. In fact, I got paid for good grades. The payment was called a stipend. The rules were simple: a student should maintain a certain GPA level and once a month a stipend would be paid to provide for one’s food and living expenses.

There was neither need nor time to work. The classes would start at eight o’clock in the morning and go on till five or six o’clock at night. In the evenings, I had to do homework. I was paid to go to school and study hard. Our textbooks were used but they were at no cost to us. Every semester a student would check out a textbook from the library and give it back after the finals. Free was the price tag.

After a year of attending the University in the states, I finally figured out my new “be strong, be tough” rules. I was to study hard in order to earn good grades because a good GPA determined not just scholarships but also my future ability to get a good job. I also was supposed to work hard to pay for the classes, books and supplies. It wasn’t easy. However, I was one of those lucky students who lived with their parents. I had a home and home cooked meals.

During the first few years in the states student loans weren’t an option for me. However, I managed to get a second scholarship that helped immensely to cover the international cost of education. Still, making $6 an hour on a part-time job wasn’t enough. But I had a vision for myself. I had a goal. I wanted to get a degree in the United States, get a good job and start making money. This goal kept me determined, persistent and motivated.

My credit card balances grew like weeds in a field while I was pulling myself through the school. Later on a top of my current credit debt I added student loans. Six years and a boat load of debt later I finally graduated with my second Master’s degree in Accounting. I am still paying off my student loans but I can see the light at the end of the very long tunnel. Sorry for using such a cliché but I do see this light!

The cost of education still bothers me. Maybe it is my upbringing, maybe it is my student loans, maybe it is my human belief but I have to say this – education should not cost a penny.