Indian Women Aren’t Managing Their Own Finances
A financial literacy gender gap means men have a $1 million investment advantage.
Aditi’s life has turned upside down in the last couple of months. The 29-year-old homemaker is in the middle of a divorce from her husband, and besides handling the tremendous emotional upheaval that such change brings, her financial vulnerability has made her feel more naked than ever before.
“My mother managed my finances for me until I got married, and, after that, I’d always assumed I’d have a husband who’d take care of these things,” she says. For Aditi, who worked as a marketing consultant for a few years before quitting her job to be a homemaker, it isn’t the lack of income as much as the lack of financial awareness and know-how that is unsettling. “I don’t like having to ask someone else where my money is, or how can I get to it,” she says.
In a 2014 survey titled “Financial Literacy Around the World,” Standard & Poor’s, a leading financial services company, found a 5-percentage point gap in financial literacy between men and women globally. In India, the gap was 8 points. This lag is worrisome. A consolidated definition of financial literacy outlines it as having enough knowledge and awareness to be able to make sound financial decisions. Due to inflation, which devalues money over time, and the tendency of women to live longer than men, it is more important than ever for women to be financially sound. When you aren’t financially literate you are likelier to have credit card debt, or unlikely to shop around for the best possible investment avenues; the loss incurred by women due to fewer investments than men over a 35-year career can be as much as US$1 million.
Various studies have looked into the financial habits of Indian women, and some of the barriers to their financial growth are common across reports. These vary from lack of income, to income is treated as “spare money” for luxuries such as entertainment and travel, to lack of confidence when making financial choices and decisions.
Such situations may arise even if women have contemplated how to save or make their money grow. Much too often, women haven’t thought about it at all.
“It’s too early to think about old age or purchasing large assets,” says 33-year-old HR professional Anu Dhir. “Sometimes there’s isn’t enough money left at the end of the month to even think of assets,” she laughs. For 31-year-old sales professional Sneha Krishnan, being comfortable in her today takes precedence over putting something aside for tomorrow. “I have a good understanding of financial instruments and know how important it is to use them to build some security for emergencies or the future,” she says. “But I’ll keep working and always have an income, so I may I as well live well now.”
As a woman, you tend not to be taken too seriously when it comes to money matters because that is seen as the male bastion.”
— Srujana Kadimcherla
Even when women decide to put away funds, few actively participate in experimenting with investments or work towards making their money grow. For a large number of salaried women, personal finance is handled by the spouse or a male family member. “My father decides how much of my money to invest and where,” says K, a journalist who has had a personal income for 11 years. “I know I should be more aware and in-charge, but unless something happens to shake things up, this arrangement is comfortable,” she says.
Like any other subject, personal financial management has to be learnt. It takes time and effort to understand concepts, terms and conditions of various instruments, list personal goals, and invest accordingly. If someone you can trust is doing all of this for you, a woman is unlikely to make the effort herself. Marketing professional Rachayeta Singla has largely let her income accumulate in her bank account. Lately, she and her husband have been considering ways to invest.
“My husband likes keeping himself up-to-date, and he’s good with the research, so I don’t see why I should break my head over this stuff,” she says. “He lays the options out in front of me, and we’ll decide what to do with my money together.” Environmental consultant Vidisha Somashekar has left her money to her father’s discretion. “I don’t think I have the mental acuity to even understand stocks,” says the 34-year-old. “I did try reading online a bit, but I quickly gave up.”
Culturally, financial matters have long been in the male domain. Even though Aditi’s finances were managed by her mother, her mother’s own finances were taken care of by Aditi’s father. Homemaker and occasional photographer Srujana Kadimcherla’s husband does all the financial planning for the family’s short and long-term goals. “As a woman, you tend not to be taken too seriously when it comes to money matters because that is seen as the male bastion,” she says.
I have a post-graduate degree in finance, but I can’t bring myself to trade in stocks.”
— Sneha Kakrania
In some cases, an age-old gender-based division of labour is also matter of convenience. For homemaker Kashish Sukhija, it’s easier to focus on child care, than travel out of her way to the bank. “My husband goes up to there to his workplace anyway, so it’s easier for him to stop by and carry out the transactions that need to be done,” she says.
Practical as this division of labour may be, the longer it continues, the wider the financial literacy gap becomes between genders. This only perpetuates women’s lack of confidence in their ability to navigate money management and nudges them to choose ‘safe’ but lower-return avenues of investment. “I have a post-graduate degree in finance, but I can’t bring myself to trade in stocks,” says lawyer Sneha Kakrania. “I have to be sure that I will at least get back what I put in, so I restrict my investments to mutual funds.” Any spare money Srujana Kadimcherla has is invested in the traditional favourite avenue for security: gold.
The irony is, when women do take charge of their finances and venture into investment, they tend to generate better returns thanks to the very traits that hold them back: They are less likely than men to be overconfident about their decisions, and they are risk averse.
Unfamiliar and uncomfortable as it may be, there’s only one way for women to deal with personal financial management. Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of financial services consultancy for women Ellevest, takes inspiration from the sports brand Nike and advises: “Just do it.” Meghna Nooyi, a sustainability consultant, has taken the plunge and availed the services of an advisor. “I have a monthly phone call with my financial planner where I ask way too many questions because I don’t understand everything right away,” she says, “but we have a plan for my investments, and I know exactly how much money I have put away and where.”
Aarti Narang enjoys writing articles of human interest, baking, and eating too much cake. She lives in London, but lost her heart to Bombay long ago.