Niranjana Soundarrajan*, a 38-year-old head of nutrition at a multi-national food company, learnt to love money the hard way after an abusive marriage and a messy divorce almost rendered her incapable of picking the pieces of her life back up. “It hit me hard how financially impeded I was when I realised that in spite of a great job, I could not afford to pay for therapy that was saving my life,” she says. Soundarrajan had no proper savings and lost a lot of money in her divorce proceedings. In spite of earning it back, she didn’t have enough to buy the things she wanted or to afford medical help.
Niranjana, like a lot of urban women, lacked financial literacy. These women might have a regular flow of finances, but are reluctant to talk about how they plan to save, use or build their life using it. This is underlined by author Lalita Iyer in her new book The Whole Shebang: Sticky Bits of Being a Woman. The book — with Iyer’s tongue-in-cheek, collected voice — details everything an urban Indian woman has to deal with from puberty to sex to relationships to cats. Iyer goes a step further to highlight more on the relationship with money and women, and the need for speaking more about the two in the same room.
Seema Khinnavar, a 25-year-old finance writer in Mumbai, seconds this. “Most women my age find it very uncool whenever I bring up topics like investments or savings with them. They think it’s boring to understand how to build a financially sound life.”Iyer points out that most women are doing one of two things — not at all talking about money or constantly apologising for talking about money. “Most of us have been brought up to believe that talking money is uncool, vulgar,” she writes in the book.
There are multiple reasons as to why women refrain from having conversations about money. Primary among them is the lack of a financial education at home. You know, the ‘Papa will buy you nice things, gudiya. Don’t bother your pretty head about money’ dialogues girls are subjected to? Parents often think they’re doing their daughters a favour by keeping them out of financial decisions. But it is this very ‘protection’ that leads to financial impairment. As in the case of Soundarrajan, it then takes a serious situation for women to force themselves to learn to talk money the hard way.
Iyer supports this argument in her book. She stresses the need for financial literacy right from school. Iyer’s family went through a lot of financial trouble during her childhood and she grew up learning about money from her mother. “Because my father was not financially stable, my mother had to learn the hard way to manage money in our homes. But I wonder how different things would have been if people like my mother and I were taught right from our childhood to manage finances efficiently,” she says.
Because of the parental net protection, girls grow up to believe that no matter what, they’ll always have a financial Plan B — mummy-daddy. Grace M, a filmmaker based in Delhi, says, “When in college, my female classmates and I weren’t allowed to manage our own bank accounts. We were constantly told that we’re not old enough to understand how to manage our finances. Initially, this made a lot of us feel that we don’t actually need to learn this if our parents are taking care of it.
“There’s a general assumption that education is the only way to be financially literate; that non-educated women will never know how to save money. My grandmother dispersed all these assumptions. As an uneducated woman with 12 mouths to feed in her home, she saved every extra rupee from my grandfather’s salary for a rainy day and stored it in a secret dabba in her kitchen. During a medical emergency, the dabba and stashed cash came in handy. The things my grandfather wouldn’t be able to buy for the family, my grandmother’s dabba did.
So what does financial literacy involve? As it was with my grandmother, it’s learning to be acutely aware of one’s expenses and learning to cut corners. Iyer, in her book, details how our habit of using credit cards actually increases our expenses more than decreases. An obvious, but often overlooked distinction she makes is how we often forget that money spent using credit cards is not actually money earned but money owed. And don’t the shopping complexes of the world dangle the lure of credit cards to get women to buy more? She also suggests that women should learn to go cashless/cardless for a day to figure out where most of our daily expenses go.
But these kind of savings and awareness leads to a common assumption that financial literacy is just about saving and never spending. Iyer’s book dispels some of these myths by pointing out that only the financially sound can learn to spend on the things that actually make them happy. Retail therapy, for example. “The day you open your closet and tell yourself: ‘I am enough’ and know that even if you bought no clothes or shoes for a year, you could still look good is the day you turn into a real grown-up in control of her finances.”
It’s not about not shopping at all, but about choosing the right things to buy at the right time by having a complete picture of one’s finances. “No one lives in Sex and the City, let’s face it,” says Iyer. “Retail therapy gives maximum catharsis only when you know that the money you’ve spent on, say a pair of shoes, has not run you completely dry.”
Iyer also points out that ambition and financial knowledge are tied together. She says, “You never hear men saying I’m just happy to find someone and settle down. But I hear a lot of women say that. If you’re more aware about the tools that can make you financially sound, the better you are equipped to raise the bar for the quality of life you want to lead, without depending on a partner.”
A lowered understanding of economics also brings down women’s negotiating power. A lot of women settle for the first salary offer they receive because they believe that’s what they’re worth. This is intrinsically tied to the conditioning that women are not supposed to ask for more in various stages of life. ‘Settle down’ — we hear the chorus. “Financial empowerment has psychological consequences. It enables women to train themselves to negotiate better in all walks of life. If you get yourself a good deal with money, you can get yourself a good deal with life,” Iyer says.
In The Whole Shebang: Sticky Bits of Being a Woman, Iyer also highlights women’s reluctance to plan for retirement. She underlines the absurdity of ‘My beta will take care of me’ syndrome that a lot of middle-aged and older women carry. But it’s not just middle-aged women who avoid conversations about about being financially independent in their golden years. Millennials too tend to stay away from thinking about old age. “This is a common problem among millennial women,” says Khinnavar. “Everyone is so intent on living in the moment that we forget to think about ‘but what after this moment?’.” Financial structures are constantly shifting. If we choose to stay unaware about the changing economies of today, we can’t possibly plan for the monetary complexities of tomorrow.
With fast-paced and demanding lives, women need to say the M word and say it again. As Iyer points out, knowing your money is less about running after money and more about setting a better quality of life for oneself. Financial awareness is simple math made to look complicated by a society that’s dominated by men handling money and ambitions. Social ‘wokeness’ is amazing, but financial ‘wokeness’ also strengthens women’s voices. And a stronger voice is the whole shebang, isn’t it?
*Name changed to protect privacy
Co-published with Firstpost