photo: iStock

Look at any city in the U.S. and it's clear that immigrants are great at saving money. Just a few years after arriving here with empty pockets, many already own businesses and homes — and even help others — while we second-generation spendthrifts are still blowing our paychecks on $6 lattes. 

How do they do it? And what can we learn from them?

It turns out our immigrant parents have three great financial habits we can easily copy.  When second-generation Latinas adopt these tricks — and, in some cases, adapt them with modern updates — the success stories are impressive!

Here’s how:

Related From Vivala: How Your Finances Affects Your Stress Levels

HABIT ONE: Track every cent you spend.

My dad used to write down every penny he spent. I thought it was a sign he had some kind of OCD, but when I recently did the same, I realized I spent $400 in one month just on overpriced bottled teas and juices (mostly organic yerba mate iced tea I could make at home for a few cents a glass). Yikes! Not to mention the hefty tab for eating out, new Nikes, and an iPod. No wonder I don’t own a home.

If you already spent your money on iStuff, download an app to help you track your spending. (I used Expense Tracker 2.0 for $5, and the free app Spending Tracker). Then cut out the porquerias your parents would never buy.  Imagine — a year making those iced teas at home, and I will have saved almost $5,000!

HABIT TWO: Join a tanda.

Also called cundinas or sociedades, tandas are an age-old method for saving money as a group. The setup is simple, as my former neighbor, Mexican immigrant Maria Torres, explains: Every week, she and nine other friends and relatives put $100 each into a collective savings pot. And every week, one of them receives the group’s pooled savings ($1,000) — until everyone has had a turn. 

When Torres cashes in early, she’s just received a no-interest loan — something that's helped her avoid being late on her rent. As a single mother, being part of the tanda helps her feel financially safer because she says, “I know it can get me out of an apuro.”

When she’s last in the cycle to receive the $1,000, the tanda helps her save: “When I have money in my hands, it’s easy to spend it,” says Torres, who works as a babysitter. “But if I know I have to give it to the tanda, it’s a commitment and I feel obligated. I don’t want to let the rest of the group down.”

That’s exactly what sociologists say is the benefit of the tanda — the social pressure not to break the group’s confianza is a powerful motivator to save. While many of us don’t feel bad paying a credit card company late — or even defaulting on payments — we wouldn’t do the same to our Tía Rosa!

Related From Vivala: Tips to Living on a Student Budget

An updated version:

While tandas have long been common among immigrants, now some second-generation Latinas are also reaping the benefits. When Sandra Rivera, a Colombian-Puerto Rican-American project manager for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, arrived in Washington, D.C., she had student loans and credit card debt — but she also had a dream to become a young homeowner.

So she and seven other young Latino professionals started what they call La Cooperativa. It’s a tanda, but complete with contracts (some in the group are lawyers), bank accounts, and a Yahoo group where they share financial tips.

La Cooperativa became “a major support system that kept each one of us focused on our goals,” says Sandra. Within two years, she was able to pay off debts and buy a two-bedroom condo in the city — and by now, everyone else in the group has also bought a home.

In San Francisco, one nonprofit has even turned the tanda into a social program. The Mission Asset Fund (MAF) lets people join tandas and then reports their payments to credit bureaus, helping boost credit scores. Even better, the MAF guarantees the payout, so if one tanda member fails, the others still get their money. Plus, members get free financial classes.

After a year, says Jose Quiñonez, MAF’s CEO, tanda members up their credit score by an average 168 points! “We’re using a tradition, but formalizing it so that it becomes visible,” Quiñonez says. MAF now works with nonprofits in 14 states to offer these “formalized” tandas. (To find one near you, check

HABIT THREE: Give back because it pays back.

It might not seem like having a big family or a tight-knit community would help your finances — after all, weren’t your parents always getting asked to be the padrinos for someone’s quinceañera or sending money to relatives back home? But it turns out this communal give-and-take has a positive financial impact.

For one, being generous with neighbors makes them more likely to be generous back when you need a favor. In times of crisis, that can really pay off: During the recent foreclosure epidemic, immigrants lost fewer homes and bought more houses than non-immigrants, a recent Rutgers and Emory University study showed. The top reason was their strong social networks. The more paisas they had nearby, says study author Kusum Mundra, the more people who could help out in an emergency, or loan them money for a down payment. Quinceañera padrino today, and tomorrow a home loan recipient!

Back in the day, immigrants set up mutual-aid societies to offer each other just this type of help.  Now, some millennial Latinas are taking a cue and joining together to create Giving Circles — groups that pool members’ donations to help others. In Denver, there’s the Latinas Give circle, and the Latina Giving Circle in San Francisco has already donated funds to youth groups and women’s groups, among others.

Since studies show that generous people live longer and have happier marriages, joining this trend can only help us.