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What My Iranian Parents Taught Me About Financial Autonomy and Creating Luck

You can't have one without the other.

Farnoosh as a child with her parents on her birthday
On my second birthday in my family's apartment in Worcester, Massachusetts. 
Torabi family

This story is part of So Money, an online community dedicated to financial empowerment and advice, led by CNET Editor at Large and So Money podcast host Farnoosh Torabi.

I've been watching the courageous protesters in Iran boldly risking their lives for women's rights and against oppression. It's made me sad and angry, but also hopeful.

And it's led to discussions in my family about how much we, Torabis, were the benefactors of luck. And how learning how to leverage that luck allowed us to pursue financial autonomy. 

After immigrating to the United States from Iran in the late 1970s, my parents were no longer interested in taking chances. They urged us to go to school, work hard and save our money. I wasn't allowed to engage in traditional after-school fun like sleepovers and co-ed dances that my parents deemed too dangerous. "You can date when you're married," my mom would joke. 

When I was young, my father attempted to explain their mindset during our early evening walks in Worcester, Massachusetts. "We're very lucky, Farnoosh," he'd say. "One day, you'll know what I mean." 

Our family's good fortune started when my dad scored a full ride to study in the US. When it was time to return home, Iran had been overtaken by a theocratic, tyrannical regime. I'd just been born and my parents were desperate to stay in America. After numerous employers refused to sponsor my parents' visa, one of them ended up hiring my father. That job led to many more opportunities over the next four decades. My parents never lost sight of those breaks.

In my 15 years as a personal finance expert, I've learned that opportunity and risk are different sides of the same coin. "Not all success is due to hard work and not all failure is due to laziness," said Morgan Housel, author of The Psychology of Money, on my podcast in 2020. "There are things in the world that can happen totally outside of your control that have a bigger impact than anything you do intentionally," he said. 

My parents understood this. A few years ago, I invited them onto my So Money podcast to share their stories and perspectives on money. (I call them my biggest fans.) As first-generation immigrants, their life in the US was simultaneously scary and exciting. They had to adjust to a different language and culture, while also maintaining their own. Their approach to finances -- saving a lot and never overspending -- was shaped by having survived scarcity, political upheaval and job loss. Like many Iranians, they put a high value on education and working hard. 

And they raised me, an Iranian American woman, to understand when it's the right time to take risks, act on opportunities and try to create your own luck. In another So Money podcast episode with my father, after he had been laid off and managed to make a huge career shift in his 60s, he said, "Luck by definition is for people who actually are aware of their situation, pay attention and know what they want."

That ethos propelled me to prioritize financial autonomy and security. And to dedicate my life to teaching others to do the same. 

The luck of a good (and affordable) education 

My parents trusted that getting an education was a rite of passage to pursuing the "American Dream." Back in the early 1980s, there wasn't a Ph.D. program in physics in Iran, so my dad was fortunate to be able to build a career in science and engineering here. At the beginning of the revolution, the universities in Iran were closed for several years, so when my mom came to the US, she took night courses at a community college, which afforded her higher-paying job opportunities.  

They insisted that I and my brother, Todd, not only go to college but also to grad school. But they didn't believe in accumulating debt to earn an undergraduate degree. So I had to opt for the lower-cost tuition at Penn State, which was initially painful for me. I had my eyes set on pricier schools. But looking back, this moment was one of my luckiest financial breaks. It would have meant over $100,000 in student loans, more than what their first mortgage amounted to. They knew I wouldn't be able to pay that off quickly. 

The luck of financial literacy 

When people ask how I ended up becoming a money expert, I say it's a combination of luck and intentionality. I studied finance and journalism, which helped. But my expertise began earlier in my childhood, when my parents would talk about money openly. They didn't shy away from having sensitive -- and tense -- financial conversations at the dinner table. They talked about how stressful the layoffs were at my dad's job and how my mom wanted the freedom to have her own money, outside of my father's income. 

I learned important financial values about investing and living below your means. My mom explained to me how credit cards work and the importance of paying your bills on time. My dad took me to the bank when I was young and set up a Roth IRA for me. When I got my first job with benefits, he encouraged me to open a 401(k) -- I had no idea what it was. 

The luck of building a career  

Throughout my career, I've learned a bit about when to take chances. In 2003, after completing my graduate program in journalism, I wanted to travel to war-torn countries and report from conflict zones. I felt a calling to go to Iran and cover the war happening next door in Iraq. 

But my dad warned against tempting fate. "If you go there, Farnoosh, you will die," he said. "They will kill you." At the time I resisted the advice. I wanted to hop on that plane and follow my dreams. But this was a massively lucky moment for me. My father knew what the reality would be for someone like me: a Western journalist, a woman and a daughter of parents who turned their backs on Iran during the revolution.

Later that year, I accepted a salaried job with health insurance at a financial magazine. The role wasn't ideal, but it did afford me time in New York City to re-envision my career. My new ambition was television journalism.

A few months later, at age 23, I was working as a junior reporter at Money magazine when the publicity team asked if someone could go on CNN to discuss our cover story. I was very green, but I raised my hand. The opportunity was too good to pass up. That 4-minute live clip helped me land my next job as a television producer and reporter. 

The lesson for me was that to reach your goals, you have to be aware of your circumstances, put yourself out there and take a risk. And I think that applies to anything, whether it's financial autonomy or political freedom. As my dad and I discussed years later, sometimes you can create your own luck.