Mayim Bialik: 'I didn't grow up with money' — here's how I try to overcome my 'financial fear'

Actress Mayim Bialik.
Photo by Dove Shore

Mayim Bialik is best known for her roles as neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler on the CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" and for her breakout role in NBC's "Blossom." The Emmy-nominated actress also holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA and is an outspoken activist who shares on her YouTube Channel her thoughts about everything from being vegan to the importance of paid leave.

Bialik spoke to Grow about her TV success as a teenager, why she doesn't buy detergent, her Hanukkah gifting strategy, and why it's hard to let go of the money messages she was raised with.

My earliest money memory: Giving back on set

I remember that I started a clothing and food drive on the years that I was on 'Blossom' because it was the first time that my family had money, and it made me very uncomfortable.

Money can be very uncomfortable. My grandparents were immigrants, and they worked in sweatshops, that's what they did for a living. My mom, she doesn't like me to use the word poverty, but my mom grew up in a tenement house. It brings up guilt when you finally have money.

I was noticing during the holidays, especially on the set, there's so many gifts and there's all this abundance. I had this notion, if we're all here, and all of these people are employed: If everybody brought one can, we would have 300 cans. I would hand out flyers, [and] my mom made me a little sandwich board that I wore on my body, and I would walk around advertising that we were doing a clothing and food drive for the holidays, and we ended up sending over two vans of stuff for the years that we did this to a shelter in Los Angeles.

I automatically felt like I needed to give back, partly out of guilt, and partly out of observing the world of working individuals. I was 14 when that happened, and all of my previous experiences were that we didn't have money, and that's why we didn't do the things that other kids did.

I remember that I started a clothing and food drive on the years that I was on "Blossom" because it was the first time that my family had money, and it made me very uncomfortable.
Mayim Bialik
Actress and neuroscientist

My upbringing: Money was 'scarce'

I remember going to Knott's Berry Farm. I think it was $10 to get into in the late '70s, early '80s, but if you exchanged your Coke cans at the Ralph's [grocery store] you could get like a dollar off, and I remember I would do that. And they used to have a pregnancy ticket. My mother was not pregnant, but she didn't ride any of the rides, and they used to give a discounted ticket if you didn't ride any of the rides. So my mom would buy the pregnancy ticket.

I will say a lot of my early memories of learning about money was that it was scarce, and I think something that's important to realize, and that I teach my children about, is that even when it's not scarce for us, it still is scarce. This is a currency that there is not enough of to feed all the children of this country. And I don't mean to sound like I'm the most depressing parent on the planet, but there are so many more programs now just to give kids breakfast so that they can sit in a seat and learn.

My budgeting strategy: Think like an 'elite athlete'

My financial advisor, who's in charge of long-term thinking, always says that he treats me like an elite athlete. You know, you can do very well financially, but [you] always have to know that you don't know what the next five, 10 years will look like.

The notion of budgeting, for me, really comes into play with the large decisions I make. I happen to live a very frugal life. And that's just sort of because of the way I was raised, and it stuck with me. You know, I always live in financial fear, which is something I'm trying to work on.

Actress Mayim Bialik.
Dove Shore

The discussions I've been having toward the end of the year are about how much I'm allowed to donate. … Not knowing where my income comes from impacts me in a way that really hurts me. It hurts my soul because I have certain charities that I donate to. One of them is UCLA Hillel, which is the Jewish organization of the university that I went to. When I'm working, I know that I can afford to support programming for the next X number of years. But now, I'm literally budgeting my donations for the amount of time that I can make that commitment.

Again, I don't mean to sound like such a goody two-shoes, but that's really what makes me the most grateful is that I'm able to help other organizations that need it when I know that I can.

My lifestyle: 'I'm a very low-maintenance female'

I make a lot of choices about cleaning products, believe it or not. That entire industry is built around putting new labels on things and charging you more for them when ingredients are typically the same. A lot of that is teaching my boys about the propaganda, which is part of the commercial system that we live in. So, you know, I use soap nuts instead of laundry detergent. You can buy a giant bag of soap nuts and they're actually berries that release detergent.

I don't subscribe to the notion of fashion as a seasonal need for purchasing new clothing. Like, when I realized that's how a lot of people live, I was astounded. Obviously, I live in a climate where there's not a lot of variation, but even so, I can't believe that when trends change, you're supposed to buy a new closet.

I don't get manicures and pedicures, which is totally fine that people want to do that. But that is another instance of something I can't imagine having to pay for on a regular basis. You know, I'm a very low-maintenance female and it does pay off.

I will say a lot of my early memories of learning about money was that it was scarce.
Mayim Bialik
Actress and neuroscientist

My red carpet advice: Wear the same dress

I think that a really difficult thing is I live a lifestyle where we often have to wear expensive clothing. That's a wonderful thing but, instead of buying a dress, you hire a stylist, which is extremely expensive but not as expensive as a dress, and you get to wear things that you don't need to own.

There are many websites where celebrities are auctioning off clothing that they can never wear again, because once you've worn it on a red carpet, you literally can't wear it again.

Tiffany Haddish very famously has a dress that she keeps wearing. It's one of my favorite things that a celebrity has done. I think she's awesome, and I've seen her wear that dress with Uggs, and I've seen [it] with heels, and I think it's an awesome statement on the ridiculousness of female fashion in particular, and also the ridiculousness of our industry, and our demand for novelty, and that is cost-prohibitive for most people.

My gifting strategy: Focus on family

Part of the reason I didn't grow up with eight nights [of presents] is my mom was raised Orthodox, and in traditional circles, Hanukkah is not a huge gift-giving holiday.

The other thing is, I didn't grow up with money. There really wasn't this notion of let's spend a lot of money on gifts. And I think what's relevant is, there are a lot of values that sometimes our parents combine with that, so we don't feel bad we're not getting lots of gifts.

When our boys were super into Lego, this was our rule: No Lego for Hanukkah. They both have fall birthdays, they had just gotten Lego from every family member or us, so we wanted Hanukkah to feel different. One year we got them these Magna-Tiles. Part of that was us trying to show there are kinds of toys that are old-fashioned and good, that still have a lot of value, and can still be really fun.

It became really fun to choose really significant gifts for Hanukkah, and then they'd get dreidels and underwear and socks. But again, we don't do every single night, so we'd space it out.

My children joke, "Why do we have to have the same crappy childhood you had?" And with all due respect to my parents, they did the best they could with the financial situation that we were in. But it also taught me about the value of being together, cooking together, building memories around those things. I found it became inconsequential that we didn't get a lot of gifts.

This article has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

This article has been updated to clarify information about Bialik's upbringing.

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