Mrs X was not a woman you could forget easily. Looming at 5 ft 9 inch, weighing nearly 90kg and mouthing a string of expletives, she stormed into my office one hot May afternoon. “What kind of an office is this? Don’t you provide parking for your customers? Here, take the keys and you park my car!” she thundered at my receptionist. I stepped out of my room to investigate the commotion, and coughed discretely. Mrs X swivelled sharply in my direction, cast me a censorious look and shot out, “You are a terrible businesswoman. No parking means no business, fancy not knowing that!”
And with that auspicious greeting from our belligerent visitor, I invited Mrs X into my office. An air-conditioned room, a glass of icy lemon tea, and a valet-parked Hyundai succeeded in bringing about the necessary truce. On enquiring what brought her here, waves of anguish washed over Mrs X and her entire frame broke into racking spasms. “It has taken me every ounce of strength to not end my life this morning,” sobbed an emotionally devastated Mrs X. Mrs X was a homemaker, and mother to a teenaged daughter. Her husband had passed away a month ago. Unpaid bills, mounting expenses and her inability to cope with her current predicament had wound Mrs X into a frenzy that morning. Finding her new financial reality intimidating, Mrs X had no time to grieve, introspect or even fully internalise the loss of her life companion.
She was mystified by how she would pay for the home loan equated monthly instalments (EMIs), education fees, food, utilities or other expenses over the next few months. Some of the monthly expenses, such as EMIs and utility bills, were paid through standing instructions from the husband’s bank account. Given the account was not jointly held, Mrs X was unaware of the balance, user IDs and passwords for her husband’s bank or email accounts. She couldn’t open his laptop because it was password protected. Mrs X came to us to help her sort her financial situation. We spent the next 6 months painstakingly unearthing the family’s assets. A Will would have been a good place to start, but there wasn’t one. Three months after her husband’s death, Mrs X discovered some ‘official’ looking documents among a stack of newspapers. That is how we uncovered some investments in mutual funds and corporate deposits. On digging deeper, we found a demat and trading account. However, nominations were absent on many of these investments.
Next came the legal need of acquiring a succession certificate, and engaging a lawyer to transfer assets to Mrs X’s name. The saving grace was when we discovered a tax computation sheet, which listed an insurance premium. On investigating further, we learnt that Mrs X’s husband had taken a Rs50 lakh term insurance policy a few years before his death. The cover was inadequate, but it helped pay for some of the family’s expenses.
Mrs X’s case is an extreme example of why women need to take care of money if they need to take care of themselves and their loved ones. It is alarming that Mrs X’s situation is not peculiar to homemakers. Across all geographies, ages and economic strata, women wilfully resist engaging with money, even at the cost of their own financial independence. Professionally employed women, too, ignore this critical facet and feel powerless to take control of their financial destiny.
I am distressed that many women fall prey to the ‘victim syndrome.’ If she is a housewife, she blames her partner’s reluctance in involving her in money decisions. If she is employed, she still relinquishes money management to spouse, father, brother...anyone but herself. When calamity befalls, there is no room to hide. No one to blame but yourself. Women have made huge strides in their professions in the last century, and yet nothing much has changed regarding their attitude to money. I refuse to accept that money management has been a male stronghold across time. So has technology, armed forces, engineering, medicine, management, civil services, or aeronautics. Haven’t women conquered those territories? What’s different about money? If women want to be empowered in the true sense, they must overcome their fears of managing money. All women desire financial independence, but there is a disconnect between what she wants and what she does to fructify that desire. She wishes she could save money from her salary, but cannot because she is forced to spend it on routine expenses. She wishes she could walk out of an abusive marriage, but cannot because she is financially dependent.
Nearly 40% of my client base comprises women. Many of them have come to me only at times of distress. Imagine a world where women treated money with the same respect they have for their work or families. We would then have a world where women:
1. Nurture a career that is satisfying
2. Choose to be homemakers, but with greater financial participation
3. Live with a partner because they want to, not because they need to
4. Strive to be financially independent
5. Build sizeable assets in their name
6. Invest towards retiring comfortably
7. Secure their children’s education
8. Reward themselves with discretionary spending
9. Create an emergency fund, so they can take a career break if required
10. Protect themselves adequately so their dependents don’t suffer financial stress
History and tradition may have written a different story for why women did not manage money. But today’s woman must change that. Because by lifting herself up, she lifts others. Because she is the wind of change.
Priya Sunder is director and co-founder of PeakAlpha Investments.