What Speaking Ukrainian Taught Me About Money

I’ve spoken Ukrainian my entire life.  After learning the language from my mother and grandmother as child, I spent every school year Saturday from kindergarten through my high school graduation attending Ukrainian school and scouting in New York’s own “Little Ukraine”.  Summers were booked with various Ukrainian camps, and my Ukrainian community and friendships quickly became (and remain) one of the most, if not the most single important aspect of my life.

So when I had the opportunity to go to Ukraine two years ago, after studying the language, culture, history, etc for the previous 25 years, you better believe I was excited.

What Speaking Ukrainian Taught Me About Money


I arrived in Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine in mid August 2012, almost 70 years after my grandparents fled the encroaching communists.  I was familiar enough with Ukrainian history and the “Russification” of Ukraine to understand that the heavy Russian influence had bled into the language, making it quite difficult for me to understand or communicate.  Luckily, my mother was with me, but even she had trouble.  We’d have to request that service providers like cab drivers and waiters speak in Ukrainian rather than the standard Russian, and even then, communication was a struggle.

Kiev, Ukraine

Mama and Me in Ukraine’s Capital

After a few days in Kiev we headed westward to L’viv, the city of my family’s origin, and to this day, one of my all time favorites.  While I understood everything in the western regions, known for being more nationalistic and less Russified, I realized that the language I had been learning for the past 25 years was seriously outdated.

I know that might sound a bit bizarre, unless you’ve experienced it yourself it’s hard to explain.  I’d say it was like I had been speaking a pre World War II, western Ukrainian museum piece of language my entire life and then was suddenly dropped into the present day.

The crazy thing is, it wasn’t like this was the language passed down to me just by my own family, it was a language I had spoken with hundreds of members of the Ukrainian Diaspora for years, my entire life in fact.  It was as if we had created our own kind of colonial village- impervious to the changes and evolution of something as basic and fundamental as language.

L'viv, Ukraine

L’viv, Ukraine

So why am I telling you all this?  Other than the fact that it’s a unique experience, and the fact that Ukraine is a major news topic at the moment, my museum piece language got me thinking about money (because honestly, what doesn’t make me think about money?).

I find that people have a tendency to get locked into a way of thinking about their finances, the same way I locked into a vocabulary of Ukrainian that is, in some ways, partially defunct in present day Ukraine.

When you hold on tightly to your first exposure and your initial experience, rather than adapting to the reality of the present, you may find your strategies, be they communicating or transacting, are outdated and don’t serve you as effectively as they could.

Just as I learned a language from my family and surroundings, we learn expectations of our financial futures in the same way.  Our parents’ attitudes and beliefs about money become ingrained in our own money mentality and manifest themselves in our own actions- the way we shop, the way we save (or don’t save), the way we measure success, etc.  Now if you’re parents were money rockstars, then you’re in luck, but if money was ever a struggle, then adapting their money mentality will likely create a similar struggle for you.

That money mentality can lock you into a pattern of destructive financial habits.  If you find yourself constantly broke and struggling with cash, perhaps it’s time to take a second look at those habits and see if the mindset behind them is still serving you.  Or, if like me and my language, you could benefit from some newer and more functional vocabulary.


If you find yourself constantly broke and struggling with cash, perhaps it’s time to take a second look at those habits and see if the mindset behind them is still serving you.


  1. says

    Love this! I never thought of my relationship to money in this way, but the parallel was particularly striking to me because I am bilingual. So insightful, and well-written. What a great reminder. Thank you for this post!

  2. says

    So interesting! I remember the first time I went abroad, I had been studying Spanish for years. But when I arrived in Spain, I could hardly understand anyone, as I was learning more colloquial Mexican Spanish. You are so right that language evolves and we can get stuck. It’s also a good reminder to not stay stuck in our destructive money beliefs, even though it can be hard to overcome.

  3. says

    I remember thinking Russia seemed a little… off… to me when I went there and partway through the first day I realized it was because all my ideas of Russia were firmly rooted in the 1940’s stories I’d heard from my family. It’s so easy to get mentally trapped.

  4. says

    Your analogy makes so much sense. For whatever reason, it’s very (very) difficult for anyone to change the paradigm of how they have come to understand money, language, or whatever else it may be. The thing is if you don’t change your perception and understanding it will become stale and outdated, similar to the Ukrainian language you learned. This can definitely be costly when it comes to money and finances!

  5. says

    I wish that my grandparents had taught me Hungarian when I was growing up…or honestly I wish I had learned ANY second language growing up. That being said, I think one thing I can think of is credit cards. There is an old way of thinking about cc and that they are evil, or should only be used to build credit, but I love taking advantage of them for the rewards! Definitely new school way of thinking.

    • says

      Ukrainian isn’t the most practical second language, but I’m grateful for it. I hope to pass it on to my children. Though by then, it will be SERIOUSLY outdated.

  6. says

    I honestly would have never guessed you weren’t a native American when we first met! :) It’s a good thing to examine your roots, I think – there’s a lot of knowledge there – change is inevitable, but it’s that comprehension is not always easy to grasp.

    • says

      I was born here, so I’m native in that sense. I just have the Ukrainian background and grew up speaking the language and immersed in the culture.

  7. says

    So interesting to learn more of your background Stefanie. I think it’s great that you can speak another language, albeit, a very unique one. It does sound a lot like the French here in Canada, like others have commented. What’s interesting is that the French taught in the English schools (like French immersion) is more of the proper French rather than the Quebecois French, however, even in France it has somewhat morphed as well, so our school French in Canada is becoming a bit outdated I believe. I don’t speak much French, but this is what I have picked up on as well as in conversations with my family and friends.

    I’m sure you must be saddened by the recent events in the Ukraine. Do you still keep in contact with extended family there, and if so, how are they doing?

    • says

      My extended family was pretty much eradicated by the last Soviet take over so I don’t have any more relatives there. Though I do have a lot of friends including a journalist who has been covering a lot of the recent events. It’s a little scary.

  8. says

    Great article!! It’s so funny how you have ended up speaking your own version of Ukranian. I have always been fascinated by how accents and dialects transpire, especially when people have derived from the same locations.
    The money connection is interesting. My parents are terrible with money. This poor money managment has followed my brother and I but my little sister is very good with her money. Perhaps she saw my parents mistakes reflecting in her siblings so learned from us?

    • says

      The money habits we learn from our parents are deeply ingrained. I think it takes some serious introspection to figure out what works and what doesn’t and make changes for the better.

  9. says

    Fantastic post! I used to work with some Ukrainian people & loved them all – such wonderful souls! I’m stopping by from SITS Sharefest!

  10. says

    Dobry Den`
    Really interesting piece. I like how you managed to make such a financial conclusion about language changing all the time. This is maybe not on the same point, but languages change so much without people realizing it. I am sure you and your friends,like mine, had all sorts of different slang words you used for certain things. Those type of word then later become accepted in to the general vocabulary and so language evolves. This happens in different areas of countries as well and that is how dialects form.

    Seeing that you were in Germany you will know about all the different German dialects where people from the same country will use completely different words for exactly the same thing.

    I would still like to visit Ukraine. I love central and eastern Europe and go there often as my wife is from Slovakia

    • says

      Haha, thanks for the hello! It’s pretty incredible how much slang influences the vocabulary. Also the advent of new technology and the whole new set of words that come with those innovations- blog, selfie, etc.

  11. says

    So interesting! Language is constantly evolving. I never thought about how a mass immigration could create a splinter group of users. And it’s even more interesting how the language you learned there in NYC is more true to the original tongue (from what I glean.) The area I grew up in gave me a certain mindset about money, specifically as it relates to success. As I’ve grown older and seen more outside that original community, I’ve started to realize that my smaller goals are no less worthy, and may even lead to more happiness on my end.

  12. says

    I lived most of my life in Montreal, and not only is it that the French spoken by the Quebecois varies significantly from that of France, it has incorporated a lot of English words and phrasing into it’s vernacular. The approach to learning language does serve as a good analogy in terms of how we can and do view our financial patterns and habits.

  13. says

    That is interesting. Any idea why the language has changed so much? I speak Spanish which I first learned from my mom and then in school but I didn’t really experience a change in language when I went back to my country. Though I have to say that accents. slang and sometimes words through out Central, South America and Spain can sometimes be hard to understand for me.

    I definitely agree that it never hurts to take a second look at your financial habits.

    • says

      I’m sure World War II, Communism, and the Soviet Era had a lot to do with the change in language. Ukraine only regained its’ independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and obviously, there is still a major Russian influence, as evidenced by the current conflict.

  14. says

    Interesting analogy and story about language. I speak Chinese (Cantonese), while it is not an outdated language or dialect, mandarin is the official language and the majority speak it. When I visited China…this lady said “arigato” to me thinking I was Japanese. I wanted to explain that I was Chinese but realized we spoke different dialects.

  15. says

    You mentioned the language being “locked in time” and that’s the way French is spoken in Quebec. It is “Old French” and not modern French that you will hear in France, as the settlers migrated many years ago to Canada from France and never updated the language. They even call it “Quebecois” instead of French :) A lot of the slang is also different, like using religious words like ornaments (a tabernacle or a chalis) as swear words.

  16. says

    A really beautiful story, Stefanie. Amazing to hear about your journey and the relation to your personal finance journey. I’m envious that you have the opportunity to learn your mother’s ethnic language. It’s something I wish could’ve with my grandparents. Keep up the great work — your writing has become fantastic! -Sam

  17. says

    Great post and analogy, Stefanie. I never really thought about how much a language can change. It’s fascinating how in your own little community it stayed the same, but back in the Ukraine it changed so much. I always love how connected you are with your heritage because it’s something we’ve seem to lost. My heritage is German and I did learn German in High School, but that was probably because German was a popular second language when I went to school, not so much today. I do try to cook a few traditional dishes but we don’t have that same strong tie you do. I hope you never lose it.

    • says

      I’m so involved, I don’t think it’s possible for me to lose it 😉 People don’t realize how big that part of my life is until they experience it first hand. Full on “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” style.

  18. David Michael says

    Great post and thanks for sharing your insights about the language and country of Ukraine. When working in Jordan a few years ago I met quite a few Ukrainian women who were trying to make a better living abroad. They were delightful. Too bad about currents events. I’d like to see Ukraine remain independent and provide greater opportunities for its citizens. Happy Travels and Finances!

  19. says

    Great way to correlate language and money behaviors. I believe in constantly learning, by reading or talking to others is a way to evolve as a person. Financial struggles are only present because those who are experiencing them do not want to change, thus stuck in a rut. Open up to other options that might be available to you is my mantra.

  20. says

    I really like the analogy. I’m glad I was able to take the good parts of my parents’ ability to manage their finances, and not the bad. My Italian teacher (from Rome) told us that because there were physical barriers in Italy throughout the ages, different dialects developed in each city since they were isolated. It’s so odd to think that you could learn the basic language, but depending on the area, no one will understand it.

  21. says

    OMG – what do you mean the language has changed? I can’t believe that it is totes different from the way it was 50 years ago! lol! Twerk, muggle, defriend, selfie, derp, etc.

    But seriously, that is a great lesson to take away from all this!

  22. says

    Wow, it’s interesting that the language has changed so much, even outside of the fact that many Ukranians speak Russian. I guess it does for many languages, I just hadn’t thought about it. I love the financial lesson that you linked it to. Things change, and you are right, being locked into one way can be damaging!

  23. says

    Enjoyable read about your Ukrainian language background. The outdated language dialect sounds like old English versus modern English, or regional dialect variation. I was in Ukraine in 2005 and also traveled to Kiev and L’viv (and Kolomyia). One highlight was watching the chess matches in the main plaza in L’viv (near that picture above, I think).

    • says

      I’m so glad you got a chance to visit! We did a little stop in Kolomiya as well as some other small western cities and villages. Such a great experience.


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