The son-in-law of a friend is part of the under-30 young crowd that lives salary cheque to salary cheque and firmly believes in the Keynesian tenet of being dead in the long run. His wife and my friend worry about it, but are indulgently helpless even as he lugs home the next-generation gaming device, takes the family for extravagant holidays (I wonder if his generosity will extend to friends of mum-in-law) and is happy to flash out the card for money that he may not have today. There’s always next month’s salary and the next.
There’s a thin line between living life to the full today and going over to the other side, giving in to the consumption urge. Using money or getting used by it, there are no easy answers—each person’s threshold will be different and will have deeply embedded roots in a variety of childhood experiences and memories.
There is documented evidence that many of those who survived the holocaust and the Great Depression displayed tendencies to hoard stuff; it could be a button or a piece of bread, but the fear that it would go away and they would have nothing was so deep in their psyche that they compulsively hoarded.
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For that urban mass affluent slice of population that is old enough to sometimes feel the strain of ropes that bind us down to our socialist past, we still are not certain of our relationship with money. The memories of lining up for milk, butter and water still sit in a room in the memory maze till they are nudged out by a radio jingle from the 1970s or the “rukavat ke liye khed hai” (apologies for the stoppage) logo and the accompanying music on Doordarshan. Sift through the memories of a simpler life to find that community-watching of TV shows and neighbourhood-shared phones were a social outcome of an economic situation of deep scarcity of jobs, goods and money. We were friends with the neighbours because there were no cars to take us to bond with people who we really got along with. So distance became the peer group selector. This was a time when the brightest among us went abroad—there was no hope of an averagely good middle-class life in India. A house with a shower that worked, a car, a TV set, a phone, a washing machine, an air conditioner—these were not for the mass middle class.
This slice of urban India that grew into adulthood over the late 1960s and early 1980s is now 35-50 years old. We’re not sure about what money means to us. Some take recourse to saying: I am too chilled out to take care of my money; anyway, it is not something that drives me. Some proudly assert that they know very little about it and they couldn’t be bothered to spend time learning to manage it—anyway, isn’t money supposed to be a dirty thing?
That dirty, furtive thought is the underlying refrain. If I acknowledge that money means a bloody lot, the problem becomes real. The power that the monthly cheque brings becomes too heavy to bear. The small compromises I make in my daily life to let that income flow become choices rather than events over which I have no control. And it somewhere links up to growing up in an India that just did not have enough. Of going in a hot and crowded Delhi Transport Corporation bus to watch a movie at the chilled American Center and pretending to be unconcerned about the quiet display of middle-class American average lifestyle, even as the cold water off the dispenser (which was clean and not broken) was quickly gulped. Of watching parents slog away hours at jobs that just did not seem to yield enough. Of feeling small even as the annual-leave non-resident Indians would open their happy-looking plastic bags to distribute goodies that were till then read about greedily in books that came from another culture. Of leading a dual life—reading like British and American kids, with plenty as their discourse, but living the urban utility-starved life of the 1970s and 1980s.
Luckily, our generation will be the last to carry that load. Of having double standards around money. And so we say: Money is crap. It does not matter. I can’t be bothered to take care of it. I have higher goals in life. I am too stupid to understand money. And we perpetuate it to our kids, by not having that conversation on money (like the one of sex) with the growing kids. By giving hugely ambivalent signals about what money means to us—inducing a moral standard and not living it ourselves—because, hey, money is fun!
The young man who is joyfully spending all he has and all that he can borrow is just more honest. As is the 25-year-old caller on my recent TV show who wanted to hit a target of Rs16 crore in 10 years.
Honestly, I have no idea where this credit-happy sub-30 generation will go when they gain the 40-plus tyre. But the gut feel is that they’ll be much more on top of their money lives than us. Just because they are more honest about money and their relationship with it.
Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy. She is consulting editor with Mint and adviser, Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority. Comments are welcome at email@example.com