Wealthsimple is an investing service that uses technology to put your money to work like the world’s smartest investors. In “Money Diaries,” we feature interesting people telling their financial life stories in their own words.

I grew up in Frisco, Texas, a suburb on the outskirts of Dallas. My dad, a truck driver, took off when my brother and I were little, and my mom, a native New Zealander of Maori descent, had to raise us on her own. She worked her ass off — at a bank, at a Hyundai factory — but still, it was always a constant struggle to make ends meet.

We never had money. You learn, as a kid whose family is broke, not to ask for things. You even learn not to want things. Just be happy with the basics you need to survive: food, clothes, and a place to live, which my mom always found a way to provide. But every year, as Christmas approached, it meant the same heartbreaking ritual. My mom would sit my brother Sergio and I down and say to us, “I’m so sorry, but there won’t be any Christmas presents this year. I just can’t really make it happen.” She’d have tears in her eyes. It wasn’t the lack of presents that broke my heart; it was seeing my mom feeling like she’d failed us, even though we’d tell her again and again that she hadn’t. I knew she would give us the shirt off her back if she had to, and her love meant more than a thousand presents under the tree.

At the age of 7, I started working. My mom found people close by who would hire me to clean their homes — windows, mirrors, living rooms, dining tables. I had a knack for making windows especially clean, spraying Windex and wiping it away with an old rag in figure eights. If I was lucky, they’d pay me a buck or two for an hour of work, and maybe give me some ice cream. Sometimes, I got sick of my hands and clothes smelling like cleanser, and I felt like my mom was pimping me out — I didn’t want to spend another weekend polishing windows. My mom had simply been teaching me — at an early age — what it means to work, and how to take pride in your work.

As a teenager, I got a job at an Italian restaurant as a food runner and a hostess. You weren’t supposed to work as a waitress until you were 18, but I managed to do it on the sly. I knew how to sell wine really well, and the management liked the higher tabs from my tables, so they let it slide that I wasn’t quite of age. The math made sense to me — the more wine I sold, the higher my tips.

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Later, when I started college, I worked at a strip mall Tex-Mex restaurant called On The Border, making minimum wage, $7.25 an hour. I was at a real crossroads. I’d taken some psychology classes at Texas State University, but the classroom felt too far removed from the actual work of being a social worker, which is what I wanted to become — I liked the idea of one day helping kids who’d grown up with some of the same struggles as me. I joined some friends on a spring break trip to Panama City, Florida. And that’s when fate intervened.

While I was drinking on the beach with my friends one afternoon, a woman named Andrea Arnold approached me. She said she was a filmmaker, and told me about a movie she was making called American Honey, about a crew of lost teenagers roaming the country. We hit it off and spent a few days together; my friends even went back to Texas without me. Eventually, Andrea asked me to play the lead role, alongside Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough.

This might sound like a dream come true, and it was. But most of the people in my life, including family and friends, were totally against the idea of me doing the movie. They wanted me to stay in school — they had no faith in the project, and the idea of starting a film career just seemed to them like a fantasy, even as it was being offered to me. My mom was the one person who encouraged me to pursue it. She told me, “I don’t understand you, but I know that you’re different. I know that there’s something special inside you, and I want you to go for this opportunity because I think it’s what’s meant for you.” Never mind all the Christmas holidays without presents — that support and encouragement is the greatest gift I’ve ever received.

For someone with basically zero acting experience, making the movie was hard work. But my whole life had prepared me for working hard. The painful part, really, was separating from all my newfound friends when we finally finished filming. A year later, the movie premiered at Cannes and became a hit. Even without a plan, I’d found the beginning of a meaningful, fulfilling career.

Whoever said “money can’t buy happiness” never bought plane tickets for their mom to go home to New Zealand after 30 years.

Beyond the creative and spiritual fulfillment of acting in movies, the financial rewards have been a thrill. Not because I like to spend money on myself. I’m a simple person and I don’t need a lot. As a kid, I built the idea in my mind that I would never waste money on unnecessary things; and now that I have money, I don’t. My most frivolous purchase has probably been a pair of shoes that light up when I skip around in them.

But what I love more than anything is spending money on other people, because I always wished I could give everything to the people who matter most to me. Recently, I gave my mom a plane ticket so she could go back to New Zealand, where she grew up, and visit everybody. She hadn’t been back for 30 years, since she left for America in her twenties, not once. When I was growing up, she would always talk longingly about her hometown, and my dream was to one day give her the chance to go home. To make that possible for her is the greatest gift I could ever give her.

Every day, on her trip, she would call me and tell me about her adventures. She would bombard me with glorious pictures. My mom has seven sisters and she hadn’t seen them in three decades. Being with them made her literally glow with happiness. Whoever said “money can’t buy happiness” never bought plane tickets for their mom to go home to New Zealand after 30 years.

Buying my first apartment has also meant a lot to me. As someone who’s always been independent and done things on my own, I admit that it felt pretty badass to buy my own place. I found a great spot in L.A., and my brother Sergio moved in with me. Every day I almost want to cry because I’m so happy that my brother is able to be out in L.A. with me, and can focus on his own dreams without worrying about paying rent.

Ultimately, while I like having money more than I liked being broke, chasing money will never be a goal for me. What can bring lasting happiness? Meaningful relationships. Connection. Positive moments that sneak up and surprise you. Finding beauty in everything you can.

As told to Davy Rothbart exclusively for Wealthsimple; transcript edited and condensed for clarity. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell.

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