Why can’t the person, regardless of gender, who has a better understanding of finance and economics deal with family finances instead of making money the new instrument of control?

For centuries in our country, money and talking about money were left entirely to traders, businessmen and bankers. Most people were happy to have money of course, but somehow, it was not something that one spoke about in the drawing room, except in very tangential forms, as one would do when speaking about the vagaries of the stock market or bemoaning rising interest rates. However, in the last couple of decades, money has burst dramatically into urban Indian drawing rooms. People seem to talk about little else, from the precise value of the latest scam to the price of their most recent designer acquisition or fancy car or exotic vacation. Still, there remains one bastion that has remained impervious to money’s recently acquired status — marriage.

In the past, money was squarely the responsibility of the man and few women had access to much money (often, the finances of women from wealthy backgrounds too were managed by some man or the other in their lives). As a result, financial discussions, if at all, focussed on mundane quotidian expenses, acquisition of jewellery and saving up for dowries. However, a fair number of contemporary couples live in dual-income marriages where each has full access and control of their respective earnings. Nonetheless, it is quite remarkable how reluctant young dual-income couples are to discuss money and finances, except when it comes to some big-ticket expenses that would require contributions from both.

A typical contemporary scenario that plays out in middle class urban India involves both partners servicing personal, educational or vehicle loans that they have no desire to disclose to each other. Or both partners would like to give some portion of their incomes to their respective parents, but do not want to run the risk of an inquisition from the spouse. Often neither knows what the other earns or saves, unless they find out by accident. And when this does happen, the surprise is rarely a pleasant one, for each ends up feeling that the partner is earning either ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ and are filled with concerns like ‘where does all the money go?’ or ‘how can we ever save on that income?’

More commonly, given our social structure, the family patriarch or matriarch demands to control the couple’s dual incomes cocking a snook at that trivial issue of consent. And if the couple lives as a nuclear family, there is every possibility that the husband might chauvinistically insist on being the trustee of the family finances. If the wife resists, ugly scenes can ensue and family panchayats summoned. Sometimes, and this has now been tending to happen with increasing frequency in recent times, the wife continues to get her taxes done by her father and his auditor and relies on the father for investment advice, rather than discussing the situation with her partner. This too ends up causing deep schisms in the marriage.

Every time I speak to a young couple who engage in what I refer to as ‘financial opacity’, both feel that financial transparency will result in increased expectations and unfair demands. After several years, some degree of financial translucency, even if not complete transparency, does enter the picture, even though little nest eggs are often secreted by either or both partners. This discomfort with financial transparency also manifests as a reluctance to have joint banking accounts. Even if such exist, they are used only as a transient space where shared money for specified purposes is located. Often such opacity is rationalised on the grounds that finances are part of one’s personal space and therefore, are to be zealously guarded. And in some marriages, although this seems to be on the decline in recent times, financial attitude seems to operate on the ‘my money is my money and your money is our money’ paradigm.

As far as I’m concerned, the most convivial way of dealing with the family finances is for the partner, regardless of gender, who has the better understanding of finance and economics to be designated to liaise with experts on the subject, always, of course, in consultation with the spouse. Unfortunately most people define themselves and their identities by the jobs they do, the designations they hold and the money they earn. As a result money has become a new instrument of control between partners. ‘I earn more than you, so I have greater rights than you’ seems to be the emerging mantra.

I do believe that transparency and open discussions, and by these I don’t mean sharing every gory, boring detail, but only those that are relevant and appropriate, is very important in a marriage, simply because it creates the nidus from which a bond of shared responsibility can grow. When there’s financial transparency and common goals, it facilitates two people pulling together rather than away from each other. And marriage gets redefined as a partnership between two contributing adults.

Maybe, as is done in the U.S., U.K. and several other parts of the world, the Finance Ministry could be persuaded to consider giving substantial tax reliefs to married couples filing their income tax returns jointly. It worked for the Hindu Undivided Family, at least for several decades. Maybe, it might be just the right shot in the arm that the Indian Undivided Marriage could use.

Email: vijay@vijaynagaswami.com

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