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“I don’t care what system you have or what you invent. At the end, you should know what your assets are, when a payment is due, and when the bank should credit an FD’s interest to you.”
2019 is the year in which our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month gets bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry. The writing cue for January 2019 is these lines from the inspiring African-American writer Maya Angelou, taken from her poem, Phenomenal Woman.
“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed”
The fourth winner of our January 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Ashima Jain.
It had been six months since Kanav and I were married. After a twenty-three-day honeymoon, a week into our marriage, we had both jumped right back into work, leaving us only with weekends to shop for our new house which was now beginning to look like a home. We were no longer attending newly-wed-dinners with relatives flung on the outer edge of extended family. There were no more takeout boxes in the bin at the end of long work days. After six months, we were finally finding a rhythm to our lives and getting to know one another.
Running a household was new to me, as was budgeting expenses. Kanav suggested we open a joint account, pooling a percentage of our income. He took charge of managing the money. Having worked for nearly a decade at careers that were steadily rising, we were both at comfortable seven-figure salaries. This was more than enough to start our lives together.
I wasn’t a big spender. My middle-class upbringing neither showed me how, nor allowed it. Before I got married, I’d transfer a part of my salary to a savings account my parents had me open, leaving me enough for my expenses. I always thought myself to be a financially independent woman, working hard to build a career. When it came down to managing the ‘financially independent’ part of my life, though, I left that to Mom and Dad.
The funds left over in my salary account were pocket money. While I had never done any banking myself, I was fluent in card transactions. All one needed to withdraw money, or spend it, was to swipe a card. Child’s play.
I never bothered to check what was happening to all the hard-earned money I transferred into savings every month. Mom would ask me to sign cheques or documents every now and then and I would do so, blindly. Twice every year, the Finance Department at my company would ask for a declaration of investments for the year and I would simply have my parents fill up the form for me. How I’d laugh at all the women queueing up outside the Accounts Manager’s office every February, asking how they could save tax. Me, I didn’t need it. I had my financially wise parents to manage it for me. I was insanely smart, right?
Well, as it soon turned out, I was not.
It was one of those days when Kanav and I decided to stay in on a much-needed mid-week holiday. He was sitting at the table with some paperwork while I was nose-deep in a book.
In between punching numbers, he remarked, “Garima, I was thinking, now that we’re married, you should file your Income Tax Return from here.”
I must have mumbled something because his next question was, “Who does your taxes?”
I didn’t have an answer and I didn’t want to tell him that. So, I said I’d talk to Dad. What difference did it make, anyway, I thought? As long as it got done, did it matter who did my taxes and where they were filed from?
Thankfully, the topic ended there when a friend called and I walked out to the balcony, leaving Kanav with his numbers.
The conversation was further lost to memory over the next few weeks until Mom called me one day at work. Kanav was out of town, on assignment, for a few weeks and she wanted to know if I’d spend the long weekend with them. I figured a change of scenery would be nice. Having grown up in New Delhi, Gurgaon could get a little claustrophobic at times. I made plans to drive there after work on Friday.
Maybe it was force of habit. Nonetheless, before I left for office on Friday morning, I gathered all my bills and expense receipts to handover to my father.
The sun was beginning to set by the time I reached my parents’ home and Mom welcomed me with a delicious spread for tea. Dad joined us later for dinner and that’s when the visit started to go downhill.
“How are you on the money front?” Dad began, out of the blue.
I looked up from the bite of parantha I was about to pop into my mouth. “All good, Dad,” I said, confused as to what had brought this on.
“I noticed there haven’t been any deposits in your savings account for the last three months.”
“Well, I’ve been putting it into our joint account, for running the house.”
“All of it?” exclaimed Mom, her eyebrows knitting together in confusion.
“No, not all of it,” I corrected her. “Just the same as I was putting into the savings account before.”
“So, wait, you’re saying what used to be your savings are now going into expenses.” Mom sounded incredulous.
“What about the money you keep in your salary account?” interrupted Dad. “Are you saving that?”
“Yes. No. Maybe. Some of it,” I floundered.
“Are you keeping receipts?”
“Yes, and that reminds me…”
Dad leaned back. “Let me guess. Kanav mentioned something about filing your tax returns.”
“Actually, he did,” I answered, gulping down that bite of parantha.
“And you’re okay with that?”
I looked at Mom. “Guys, what’s with the third degree?”
Mom and Dad exchanged a look before Dad rose from his chair and left the room, looking angry and worried.
“Mom, seriously, you’re scaring me. What’s wrong?” I asked.
Mom drew in a deep breath. “Garima, don’t you think it is high time you start taking stock of your finances? What is the point of your education and career if you can’t look after the money you have? We aren’t going to be around forever. Why should you have to depend on someone to manage your own money?”
“I am managing it, Ma. Marriage changes a lot of things. I’ll start saving from next month. I promise.”
“How? Are you expecting additional funds? And what exactly are you managing? Do you even know the balance in your savings account?”
This conversation was becoming a tad awkward for me to handle. I had to get out.
“Mom, it’s getting late and I am tired. I think I’ll turn in.”
Mom sighed, clearly disappointed in me, but she didn’t say anything.
As I got up to leave, Kanav called.
Even before I could say hello, he began, “My trip to Hong Kong is preponed. I leave on Sunday and will return by the end of the month. Problem is, I’ll be in meetings starting tomorrow and there are things that need urgent attention. Do you think you can manage it?”
“Uh, yeah, sure! What do you need?”
“Great! I’ll WhatsApp a list to you later tonight. Oh, I may have a couple of days to myself in the city so send me your shopping list. No promises. I will try and get what I can. See you soon, Love!”
Before I could get in another word edgewise, Kanav had already hung up. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
Wishing my parents goodnight, I went to my room.
The next morning, a series of messages were waiting for me – detailed instructions from Kanav. Some of it I could manage, but he wanted me to login to the joint account and pay bills and insurance premiums and whatnot. What did I know about paying bills or internet banking? I didn’t even have passwords to anything. Normally, I would have asked Dad to take care of it. After last night, that was not something I wanted to do. Sure, I could ask Kanav, if only that didn’t make me look like a complete and utter fool.
I decided to bite my pride and talk to Mom. I knew for a fact that she did most of their banking online.
I sat her down after breakfast and pleaded for help. She said no. Mom simply refused. Her exact words were, “You run a business for your company, don’t you? I’m sure you can figure this out on your own.”
Well, she’d left me no choice. I was at the deep end and had to save myself from drowning.
I began by looking up the bank’s website on Google. Of course, they needed login credentials which I didn’t have.
I sent Kanav a message asking for access passwords to our online services and he replied with a series of angry looking question marks. What followed was an embarrassing exchange of messages, at the end of which he finally sent me the link to a file that I now remembered was lying in our shared Dropbox folder.
Ah, I thought to myself, feeling rather silly. So that’s what that file was. I faintly recalled Kanav telling me about it when we had shared the folder on our phones.
I logged in and selected the necessary buttons and boxes to make the first payment. I caught Mom sneaking a look at my screen. I wouldn’t ask and she wouldn’t say, yet she was monitoring what I was doing. It took me a little over two hours, nonetheless I managed to do it all, with a little assistance from Mom. Of course, now that I think of it, it sounds absolutely disgraceful that this was literally the first time in my 31 years that I had done any banking on my own.
Even so, just as I was beginning to feel proud of my achievement, Dad dropped another bombshell on me.
Soon after lunch, he entered with a large cardboard box, the contents of which he proceeded to empty on the dining table.
“This, Garima, is your paperwork. All your bank statements, insurance policies, investments, everything. You have four days and you are not getting up from this table till you have read, understood, and made a note of every piece of paper in these files. I don’t care what system you have or what you invent. At the end, you should know what your assets are, when a payment is due, and when the bank should credit an FD’s interest to you.”
I felt as if someone had put me in an oven and turned the temperature control to High. How could I master this mountain of paperwork in four days? It was impossible.
As if reading my mind, Mom gently massaged my shoulder and said, “Start from someplace. You’ll find your way.”
I opened the first file folder and a blank spreadsheet on my laptop. As I read through reams of paper, I started making notes. I realised that until today I didn’t even know how much tax I was paying on my annual income.
Mom and Dad patiently answered any questions I had and I was slowly able to convert those notes into tables of data. It took me three whole days, at the end of which I had a decent grip on my finances. Seeing the numbers before me, I could see why Dad always said It’s not how much you earn, but how well you save and invest, that matters. It appeared they’d helped build a tidy little nest egg for me.
I’m now working on a calendar system to remind me of due dates for bills and payments. It’s going to take a while to feed in all that data to create calendar entries. Once done, it will be a life saver.
I must say I feel quite accomplished. I am confident I could do this for Kanav’s files as well. He has a system, I know, though mine may help him retrieve information faster. Bonus points if I complete it before he returns. That last message exchange did not end well and I need to fix that.
Meanwhile, I can see Dad’s relieved. I’m just not sure he is confident I will keep up.
The truth is, it has taken me ten years and an intervention to get this far. There is no way I am letting go of this new-found ‘financial’ independence.
Ashima Jain wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: shutterstock
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