Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: Lifelong learners when it comes to their finances

Self-reliant and averse to debt, this multifaceted group is hungry for new ideas and tools to help them manage their money and pursue their goals


By Janice Chen

I’D NEVER SEEN MY FATHER CRY, but there were tears in his eyes when he shared this story from his childhood in Taiwan with me. He was remembering the day he had to borrow money to repair a flat tire on the bike he rode to school. The youngest of five children growing up poor in a country devastated by war, he’d known that he wouldn’t be able to repay his classmate, and all these years later, he still regrets that. It’s experiences like this, I realized, that likely shaped my father’s frugal ways.

As the first American citizen of my family — my parents and sister immigrated two years before my birth — there are vast cultural differences between us, but my parents instilled in me the desire to be financially self-reliant. According to a study of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) from Merrill, “Diverse Viewpoints: Exploring Wealth in the AAPI Community,” this is an attribute that many AAPI individuals share.

The study is part of a series of reports on the financial realities of diverse communities, including the Black/African American, LGBTQ+ and Hispanic-Latino communities. “We’re always focused on how to serve our clients best. Having a deeper understanding of who they are culturally — and how their background and experiences shape their financial priorities — is an important part of that process,” says Sabeen Villani, North Florida market executive for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

We prioritize passing on wealth — and values

Creating stable wealth and planning across the generations are priorities in the AAPI community: Forty-six percent of affluent AAPI individuals consider passing on wealth a vital part of their financial plan, compared with 36% of the affluent general population. For software architect and Merrill client Alan Jiang, who immigrated to Austin, Texas, from Shanghai more than 20 years ago, providing support for family in both China and the U.S. is integral to his financial planning. “Our parents don’t need our help, but we still have a reserve, just in case,” Jiang says. As for the next generation, “We set up a plan for my daughter. She’s going to have her own life, but we can support her in achieving her financial future.”

Family members also act as role models, with 49% of affluent AAPI individuals stating that parents have had a positive influence on their financial choices. Says Shweta Sanghvi, a marketing vice president at Bank of America who emigrated from Mumbai, India, to attend graduate school in the U.S., “Our mother taught my sister and me to always have a plan for giving back. She led by example — pitching in time and money towards causes she supported. It’s a part of who we are.”

We’re self-reliant, risk averse and don’t like debt

Almost half of affluent AAPI individuals in Merrill’s survey said they prefer to make their own investment decisions compared with just a third of the affluent general population. Related to this self-reliance is a tendency to avoid risky financial situations. Over half of the study’s respondents said they are apprehensive about holding debt, other than a mortgage; a full 72% feel it’s important to be totally debt-free, compared with 65% of the affluent general population.

“The historical discrimination we have experienced as a community may have caused some of us to spend less and be more risk averse — we feel the need to be prepared financially should something happen again,” notes Manju Kulkarni, executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance, a Los Angeles-based AAPI advocacy organization. The desire to be debt-free may also stem from cultural experience. “My parents came from a country where credit was not common,” says Merrill’s Villani, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. “If you needed to go to the hospital or buy a car, you paid cash upfront.”

Merrill client Lynda Sun Lee, a recently retired director of global business development for a pharmaceutical firm, grew up observing self-reliance and frugality in her father, who moved from Taiwan to New York City with $250 in his pocket. “No matter how much wealth he eventually accumulated, my father followed his own instinct about saving as much as possible,” Lee recalls.

We’re lifelong learners — even in the areas of investing and managing money

Another shared value in the AAPI community is an emphasis on education and lifelong learning. A quarter of affluent AAPI individuals cited learning new things, seeing new places and having new experiences as top life motivators. That curiosity extends to finances as well, with respondents expressing more interest than the general affluent population in topics like tax-aware investing, asset allocation and diversification strategies, online investing tools, preparing for healthcare costs and estate planning. Lee notes, “Since I retired, I’ve thrown myself into all sorts of different opportunities to learn and grow.”

For my own father, who came to America on a graduate student visa, an education for my siblings and me was his primary financial goal. In fact, he overcame his aversion to debt only twice: first to move us to a better school district and then to pay our college tuition. And while taking out a car loan didn’t pain me as much as my father’s bicycle repair had distressed him, I live well within my means, and I save to take care of my parents and my children. And that loan? It was for the car my daughter drives to school every day.

Janice Chen is a writer specializing in technology whose work has appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times and BusinessWeek to Parenting and People magazine.

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This article features third-party individuals not affiliated with Merrill or any of its affiliates and is for information and educational purposes only. The opinions and views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Merrill or any of its affiliates.

The videos were recorded in September and October 2022. Please read important information at the end of the videos.