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From Valentine’s Day to Women’s Day

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-03-2017 Monika Halan

I wanted some stuff and so dropped by the nearby mall a few weeks back. I like walking in a mall. It is clean, safe, there are loos unlike in most market places in India and you don’t really need to buy anything—the buzz of happy people all around is free. Buy guys, we need to grow at 8% GDP!

On this day, I’m surprised to see all the well-dressed women. Then I notice that many are wearing red. It takes ecstatic couples taking pictures around a Taj Mahal replica made fully of roses, and it clicks into place. Ah! Valentine's’ day! So many happy people! While people have fun on this day, there is another day that I actually want to talk about.

The fun and games of the day of love may translate for some into a long-term commitment. Most couples will fall into the pattern of predefined roles for men and women. Women will either work at home or work both outside and inside the home. Men will take over the finances of the house, while women run the household. The lives of women get more busy—the kids come. Women are the primary caregivers in most homes. There are a few notable exceptions I know where the role reversal has worked superbly; but the men continue to manage the money. 

In a way we can look at this as division of labour. Most women who work both inside and outside the home have very busy lives, so it is a relief not to have one more thing to look after. It’s only fair that men do the taxes and manage the money. Homemakers can take over the role of money managers, but most are constrained by a social structure that limits women’s role in family finances to managing the monthly budget.

Think about it. Money is power. Why have women been conditioned to not think about money? Questions about a woman’s share in the family property, about details of assets created, about the way the money is spent and saved are not encouraged in many families. For every story you hear of a woman who took the husband’s family to the cleaners in a divorce settlement, there are thousands who don’t have the strength to fight the ultimate threat—the kids or the money. Women are left with the kids and the bills but the popular image of a grasping gold digger is firmly etched in our minds. 

What am I saying this International Women’s Day? To women who work outside the home I can only say this: I know you have complicated lives, but a quarterly update on the state of the family finances is doable.

I met Faye D'Souza, editor of Magicbricks Now, as a co-panelist at the recently concluded Women Writers’ Fest in Delhi, organised by the wonderful people at Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, who said: “I’m the CFO (chief financial officer) of my house and once a month I update my husband. He is allowed to ask questions about my decisions. But every family must have a CFO. The CFO must be accountable to the spouse.” 

In the rush of life, we forget to create a calendar alert for things that really matter. Use the trigger of a Women’s Day to have your annual financial meeting with the spouse. Involve the kids. I find it helps to communicate clearly and honestly with kids on how much we have and how we are spending and saving. Set up a meeting using a birthday or an anniversary date as a trigger point. Or use a festival as a memory jog. Every Diwali (or whatever your special festival is) and every Women’s Day, we review our finances. Or every birthday and year end we review our finances. 

What questions do you begin asking at these update meetings? Begin with basic questions: How much do we earn as a family? How much do we spend? How much do we save? Where do the savings go? What products do we have? What real estate assets do we have? In whose names are the products? Where are the papers kept? Do you have a life insurance cover? What happens if you lose your job? What happens if you get disabled? What happens if you die?

The more difficult questions are about family assets. Do your parents have a Will? Do mine? Do we have a Will?

Questions on death are the most difficult. I kid you not, my husband and I do scenarios: What if I die? What if you die? What if we both die? What happens to the kid and the dog? There are unnatural taboos around talking about death. You don’t tempt fate by talking about death. 

Homemakers need to go a step further. It is your job to reduce the burden of the spouse by taking over the financial work. Filing taxes is not rocket science. If you can run the washing machine, bring up a kid and manage the dysfunctional extended family, you can prepare the papers for the family chartered accountant to file taxes. You can go right ahead and file taxes yourself, once you learn enough. 

Go ahead and use this Women’s Day to empower yourself. Remember, statistics say that women live longer than men. You don’t want to learn all this in your old age. Do it while you can. 

 Monika Halan works in the area of consumer protection in finance. She is consulting editor Mint, consultant NIPFP, and on the board of FPSB India. She can be reached at monika.h@livemint.com

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