Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Insecure at any income level

Women feel a loss of independence due to lack of control over their financial lives

They don’t look insecure. They look as if they have it all together. Confident, contemporary, urban Indian women. Professionals all of them. But speaking at the Women of India Leadership Summit (http://www.womenofindiasummit.com/) last week, I understood that the façade hid deep feelings of insecurity about money. In fact, it was the feeling of financial insecurity that bound the panel and audience alike. Women said they felt insecure about living in homes that did not belong to them, but to the in-laws or to an HUF (Hindu Undivided Family). They said that they felt insecure because they needed the husband to agree before they could do anything—from going on a vacation to setting up a business. They felt a loss of independence due to lack of control over their financial lives. Finance and numbers intimidated them. And they wished for greater control.

Listening to their stories told me that financial insecurity remains the biggest threat to women—especially to those in their 40s and 50s. The first flush of youth is long gone, as are the high emotions of a new marriage, and the whirlwind years of babies, school and all that consume women in the high energy years of raising a family and managing a career. The dust, as they say, settles. Assets have been bought over the past 15 years, and life has fallen into a pattern. That’s when it hits them: they are no longer in control of their lives financially!

I was the odd one out. In control, not only of my finances, but that of the extended family. Given the control I have of the money, I interpret my duty of care to ensure that insurance policies are in place and not only are funds invested judiciously but also that information about what assets, in whose names and the location of the documents is shared. Emails, notes and labelled files and cupboards are all efforts to ensure that at least financially life will go on even if I’m not there. This role is traditionally played by men—father, husband and son.

Being one of two girls in an education-seeking first-generation migrant family in Delhi may possibly have been the reason that we were fed doses of independence instead of gold trinkets. And these are lessons that have ensured a lifetime of being in control. And if my duty of care tells me that I need to include, I wondered at the Summit, what makes the men tightly control the money and assets? And what makes women believe that they are no good at this?

The most obvious is the long arm of history that makes the ‘modern’ Indian woman who steps out to work in any significant number, a very new phenomenon.

The other significant reason is the conditioning, even in ‘modern’ homes, of the girl child about attitudes towards math and science. What is the girl child going to believe when the mom says with great pride: “Oh, I have no head for numbers; I leave all the money decisions to my husband" or, even worse, “girls and numbers don’t go together". Research shows that girls and boys do equally well at math and science till the age of nine to about 12 at puberty, the gap begins and then continues to widen. In fact, it is not just attitudes towards math and science but also physical activities like running that begin to change at the crucial age of 12-13. Watch this incredible clip to see what it means to ‘run like a girl’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjJQBjWYDTs.

What can you do if you are feeling insecure about your financial future? Begin reading. The conversation with the man controlling your finances can go either like this: “You never tell me anything". Or, it can go like this: “I read that it is a good idea for spouses to know the location of all documents of assets. Can you tell me what we own, what we owe and where the paper work is kept?"

If you want to be treated at par where money management is concerned, you will have to equip yourself to talk the language of money. The first thing to do is to stop saying: “I have no head for numbers" or, “Oh, I just spend the money; he makes it". You behave like a brainless person, you get treated like one. Know this: women are not brainless when it comes to money. The obsession with gold that Indian women have is an ace self-preservation strategy—it ensures that wealth is carried on the person, in the absence of any legal rights over property or other assets.

There is enough out there for you to get financially fit. Invest the time and then begin the conversation at home. Mail me if you have questions or stories to share.

Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money, Yale World Fellow 2011 and on the board of FPSB India. She can be reached at expenseaccount@livemint.com

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