So this edition is a tough one for me to write. And it might be tough for women to read because after some well-deserved Raja Beta bashing, I am pointing the finger back at us this week.
I have a shameful secret: I am an MBA. Also, this means that I studied things like futures and options and derivative financing and commodities trading - stuff that was so technical, I fear I might have already lost half my readers by the end of this sentence.
But, a secret which is even more shameful to admit is that all this formal training in finances was wasted on me. If you had asked me a month ago, I could not have told you with any degree of confidence how much my own life was insured for.
How did I get here?
My parents wanted me to get a life insurance policy when I started earning. When they tried to talk me through the options, I told them not to bother me with boring stuff and just tell me where to sign.
When I got married, I delegated the 'just tell me where to sign' duties to my husband.
Each time someone has tried to talk to me about my money, I have deflected with an excuse.
I am too busy.
I find this boring.
I don't understand all this.
I will cross this bridge when it comes.
You are there, na, why do I need to worry about this?
I trust you. Just tell me where to sign.
Personal finance. It is a monster in a box that we do not wish to open.
As women, especially, most of us are happier offloading this on our partners, or our parents, or our in-laws - literally anyone else as long as we don't have to do it ourselves.
Why is this? ("And, oh my God, Mahima, are you seriously going to make me read about mutual funds on a weekend? See you next Friday.")
Bear with me. This will be worth your time. Enjoy another GIF.
Tu Paise pe kyun marti hai?
Shomita is a senior engineer at an automotive firm. She is used to managing large projects, but there is something she feels ashamed to admit.
"I recently handled the technical budget of a project worth $3 million. And yet, I don't manage my own finances. I hate myself everyday for this."
It is not that she did not have a strong female example growing up. Her mom managed all household finances, including investments and insurance for her dad. But she also grew up seeing her mom's strong example attract derision and criticism from the family.
"My paternal aunts would criticize my mother for being 'too money-minded'. My parents had a love marriage without any dowry, so she was even labelled a 'gold digger' by my father's family. The fear of being labelled the same way made me feel like I should distance myself from finances. With songs like 'Kyun paisa paisa karti hai, tu paise pe kyun marti hai?' (Why are you all about the money, girl?), even Bollywood reinforces that any woman talking about money is either greedy or a miser or a gold-digger."
After she got married, Shomita seemed to steer herself as far from her mother's strong example as possible, letting her husband take the lead on finances “to seek his approval, satisfy his ego.” She thinks the seeds of our lack of financial independence are sown early in our childhood.
"Psychologically, girls are never geared in the direction of managing money. Boys are told by elders, 'sab tumhara hi hai, tumhe hi dekhna hai'. (Everything is yours, you have to manage it.) So they naturally develop a sense of ownership and responsibility about money. Girls are told we are 'paraya dhan'(someone else's property) so we never develop the same sense in our parent's home."
And even after the 'paraya dhan' is NEFT-ed to her rightful owner's account, it is just more of the same.
"In many households, including mine, a woman's salary is not something she is supposed to feel proud of. To this day, if I have to work late on a particular evening, my mother-in-law makes a comment at the breakfast table the next day about how women these days are only running after money and ignoring their family. When my husband does the same, he is appreciated for how hard he works for the family."
"Every time she says this, I hear the same old song 'Tu paise pe kyun marti hai' play in the background. As much as I feel ashamed of not handling my finances, it really is no wonder that I don't. It has come to a point that I feel fear when handling money. Even my own money."
Putting out everyday fires
Lata echoes the sentiment that Shomita expressed - the feeling of fear when handling finances. A mother of two kids, she has asked her husband to handle all the household finances.
"I haven't done it for so long that think I have lost my self-esteem and self-confidence in this respect - I feel like I cannot handle finances anymore."
The minor twist in this tale is that Lata is a Deputy Commissioner of Income Tax.
Let that sink in. An officer who literally handles the nation's finances, feels like she cannot handle her own.
"With two kids, so much of my time and energy and concentration is on running the house, what the kids ate for lunch, what books are needed for their school - that there is absolutely zero time left at the end of the day to sit back and think about finances."
No surprise, then, that Lata’s husband manages the household finances.
"It is not like he is more qualified than I am. We are both in the same job at the same seniority. In fact, by education, he is a graduate and I am a post-graduate. But I feel so overwhelmed putting out daily fires that I have no energy left to plan for the distant future. So I just let him take all those decisions."
At the same time, Lata admits that she is intimately familiar with the pitfalls of this kind of delegation of finances.
"I have a friend who got married to an advocate. A year later, she suffered a stroke that left her bed-ridden and with significant neuro-damage. Her husband promptly dropped her off at her parents' house and walked away, telling them he can't take care of her."
"After over a year of her parents nursing her, feeding her, cleaning her, and after undergoing a lot of painful physiotherapy, she is back on her feet, though still with some speech impediments. She went back to his house and he simply refused to recognize her. She is now filing for divorce and damages. He claims that he has no earnings."
"She came to me asking for his income tax returns. I want to help my friend but I obviously cannot because it would be illegal and unethical for me to share any citizen's tax returns with another citizen. Even RTI would not allow it. She has no legal recourse left. When you look back with the benefit of hindsight, it is shocking that they were partners for a year and yet, she has absolutely no access to any proof of his income - not his salary, his legal fees, his tax returns, his bank statements, credit card statements - nothing."
One would not wish such a fate on anyone, but it is clear that women who distance themselves from finances are leaving themselves exposed to a world of pain.
On her own now
Aditi is an exception to this rule of women uninvolved in finances. She says that she was “almost shamed into becoming financially literate” by her father from an early age.
“He would say, 'Can’t park the car? Don’t bother driving. Can’t decipher your salary slip? Quit your job.' I’m not sure if this was the best approach to parenting, but it worked. I also had the right role models. My mother was a banker and my mausi (aunt) is a chartered accountant. Women handling finances was normal in my family."
Aditi got married to an Air Force pilot. In the Air Force, you write your will on the first day of service. And when a pilot gets married, there is a tradition to not let them fly a plane until they have updated their will to include the spouse in it.
Tragically, Aditi's husband's will became a very important document when he was martyred in the line of duty just a few years after they got married.
"When I lost my husband, the paperwork was more overwhelming than the emotional turmoil. Understanding what I was signing, knowing his will line by line helped. I could ease things out for my in-laws too. I was grateful for the financial literacy that my parents had drilled into me. This is why we need to throw this toxic notion of ‘women can’t handle math and numbers’ out of the window and get real."
For Aditi, being on top of her family finances proved to be an unmistakable strength. But this is not the case with most women.
"Recently, I came across another Air Force martyr’s wife on a WhatsApp group. Her helplessness around the paperwork made me sad and angry. Having to deal with financial documents which appear like Greek and Latin on top of losing a life partner can be harsh. She is coping, but I think she knows deep down that things would have been easier for her, had she not bestowed complete control of finances to the worthy men in her life. It’s not a matter of trust, but of independence."
"The armed forces have a well-established support system for times like these. I shudder to think of the ordeal that women in the civilian world go through when faced with such a situation. With this particular lady, the rest of us tried to walk her through the process, to ease her pain as best as we could. But the harsh truth is that she is on her own now."
Priyanka Mashelkar runs a free Personal Finance Crash Course* online which covers basics like budgeting, using credit cards responsibly, retirement and goal planning.
She thinks a big reason why women feel averse to getting into finances is the uncomfortable conversations that come with it.
"We want to avoid having the uncomfortable conversations with our partners that finance inevitably raises. 'Where do we see our lives going in 10, 20, 30 years? What are our plans for the kids? Are you a spender? Am I a saver? Where does that leave us as a couple? Why are your nominees your parents and not me?' These are all difficult conversations to have."
And perhaps the most difficult conversation to have is 'What will happen if one of us dies?'
"We sometimes feel like just talking about death will lead to death. But we also know that that is an irrational fear. In fact, much to my husband's disquiet, I have made a ‘Death Folder’ for him. It has a list of all my accounts, passwords, all the nominee forms. Since I am in government service, there is a list of all the benefit schemes for families of people who die while in service. There is a list of all liabilities - all the credit cards, loan documents. All original documents, passwords to my email, other useful website logins. I have even created a Legacy Account on Facebook for my husband to use. He can memorialize my FB page if I die!"
Priyanka and I had a nice laugh talking about artificial intelligence backing up our personalities in the future, but what she said hit me hard.
My husband has been telling me that we should write our wills for years now and I keep postponing the conversation as if talking about it will make us 'catch' death. I clearly have some growing up to do.
And, as Priyanka says, having these difficult conversations can actually strengthen marriages. Knowing our shared dreams for the future, even our divergent dreams for the future, knowing we are doing everything we can to help our family tide over any unforeseen difficult times - these are powerful bonds that can bring us closer to each other.
Do it for the men.
Meeta Gupta runs Moolah - a WhatsApp community* that women can join to learn the basics of finance.
Meeta agrees with my 'monster in a box' metaphor and that, whatever the reason they give, most women are too scared to take it out.
"Finance is such a big word that we don't want to deal with it. This is not surprising because there is an entire industry of people out there who make money because they have made it a big deal. They say 'This is complicated. So only I can handle it for you. Leave it to me, pay me for it.' My job is to demystify finance. Once women go through it once, they realize that it is not as tough as it looks."
An interesting point Meeta raises is that just as women feel a great sense of relief when the men in our life share our domestic mental load, it can also be freeing for the men when women start sharing the mental load of finances.
"I have seen husbands suffering in silence - living alone with the stress of debts, mortgages, loans, even bankruptcy. They do not feel like this is something they can or should burden their wife with. To protect their wives and families from the stress of money, they take more credit cards to pay off old credit cards. Of course, it never ends well. And their wives have no clue while the husband is suffering - not until it is too late."
Meeta shared the story of a client whose husband used to hide finances from her in a similar way. Let's call her Vidya.
"Vidya's husband had no clue about managing budgets, yet he felt like he had to do it alone. He would take loans indiscriminately and spend lavishly to create an impression in society. For decades, he did not save a single paisa. At one point, his debt became so big that he was unable to pay their son's school fee. That was when he finally told Vidya about the mess they were in."
Fortunately for him, Vidya had noticed her husband's spendthrift nature and saved for a rainy day through all their years of marriage.
"Even though she had always earned less than her husband, Vidya truly bailed him and the family out of a disastrous situation. What's more interesting, I saw how the husband's health and life changed after he started sharing the load with Vidya. He used to have high blood pressure, anxiety - all sorts of stress-related health issues. Since he started sharing financial decisions with his wife, he became so stress free that all his health issues vanished!"
The Three Golden Rules
The Moolah community has women ranging from 19 to 80 years of age. But there are three golden rules Meeta tells all of them to follow:
"One, build knowledge about the basics - how to use credit cards, how to save and invest, how insurance works, etc. Two, track your expenses, keep a diary in which you record how much you are earning and spending so that you can plan your savings. Three, and most importantly, build a happy relationship with your money. Anything you get intimated by or scared of will be something you will not want to engage with."
In other words, open the box, take the monster out, give it a hug. You might be surprised by what you find. It is not as scary as it seems.
So husbands, take over meal planning this weekend, while wives take over systematic investment planning. This mutual fun is subject to gastric risk, please read all scheme-related documents carefully before ingesting.
I know you want to kill me for this terrible terrible pun. But on the bright side, I now also know the insurance amount my family will get if you do.
While we are on the subject of finance, writing Womaning in India gives me more joy and less pay (₹ 0) than any job I have ever done before. Even as I type this, I am fighting every middle-class bone in my body which is screaming "tu paise pe kyu marti hai". But if we have learned anything this week, it is that women need to fight this instinct.
So, if you like the work I am doing here, show me some love and buy me a coffee by clicking the button below:
*You can find Priyanka’s free personal finance crash course here, and reach out to Meeta to join the Moolah community here. I have also recently started following the YouTube channel of Rachana Phadke Ranade who is a CA and gives pretty sound financial gyaan for newbies like us.