About two years ago, I logged into my bank account and felt a jolt of shock. There sat a sum of money that my account hadn’t seen in years; perhaps ever. It wasn’t as if my salary had increased. In fact, it was the middle of the pandemic, and I had just been told at work that my paltry monthly income was about to be sliced by a significant percentage.
The silver lining to this ominous cloud was that there had been nothing to spend on. No weekly shopping drills or hefty grocery runs, no post-work drink binges or weekend movie dates. With nowhere to go, the zeroes in my savings account added up rather swiftly. This was pleasant but unfamiliar territory. I was infamous among friends and family for never being able to hold on to money. For the first time in my 34 years on this planet, I felt the urge to do what my father had been pleading I do for the last decade: Invest.
In real life, for a writer living in Mumbai, there was a stark imbalance between what I earned and the truly astronomical cost of living in India’s biggest megalopolis, especially pre-pandemic. Between paying exorbitant amounts for rent and basic amenities, keeping up with trends (an occupational hazard for I worked at a fashion magazine) and the dealing with the pressures of having a social life (gigs, parties, dinners et al), my savings balance was usually in the red by the third week of any month. Who could take Rakesh Jhunjhunwala (may he rest in peace) seriously when a daily cup of chai from the neighbourhood stall had to be budgeted for?
Traditionally, as many surveys and think pieces on the subject have observed, women have relied on the men in their lives — their fathers and husbands — to organise their money and make it work for itself. Years ago, in his infinite wisdom, my father had set up a Public Provident Fund account, into which I would deposit a basic amount each year. Lately, this money came from the travel fund that my partner had insisted I set up. That trip to Bangkok is yet to be taken, but here was another silver lining. Those few lakhs saved up for the holiday were now growing at a slightly higher interest rate and getting me a nice fat tax rebate.
Last year, I blew up my life by quitting my day job, having realised that one source of income, and being a small cog in a viciously capitalistic machine, has never brought anyone health, wealth, or wisdom. Turns out, not putting all your eggs in one basket is personal finance gospel too. As I gingerly stepped into the gig economy, my father sat me down, opened a dog-eared spiral-bound notebook, and said: “Today, I am handing over your portfolio to you.”
I stared at a complicated spreadsheet of mutual funds that he had invested in on my behalf, most of them a nice balance of debt and equity; all meticulously updated every quarter for years — NAVs and XIRRs, current and actual value, and all manner of percentages (terms I was yet to understand fully).
Panic gave way to wonder and relief. While I was “too busy” to click on the links he sent or even reply to his messages about filing tax returns on WhatsApp, he’d set up a nice base with the scraps I had scrounged away over the years (throwing in some of his own hard-earned wealth). Sheepishly, I thanked him for this gift of financial security. He grunted in acknowledgement. “You’re on your own now.”
So there I was, jobless in the middle of a pandemic and (ironically, unwittingly, maybe even unwillingly) on the cusp of financial independence. In 1929, the great Virginia Woolf figured that “500 pounds (a year) and a room of one’s own” might be the key to the creative liberation of women, in her seminal work A Room Of One’s Own. A century later, I, and millions of other women, have access to this dream, and the wherewithal to add ‘a small education in personal finance’ to that list. Because the thing about independence is that you need to work at it, hard, every day.
The most visited apps on my smartphone are no longer Nykaa and Zara, but Kite by Zerodha and MoneyControl (after Instagram, of course; I’m no philistine). Once in three months, I have a date with all the banks and trading websites to get updates (and learn the jargon). I’m on the fence about cryptocurrency, but I am keen to learn more deeply about NFTs, as anyone interested in investing in art probably should be at this point. Trading on the stock market, says my father, “requires you to be a good, fully actualised human being.” So that’s obviously a few blocks off. The pipe dream is to buy property in the Himalayas and live the country life. For now, I’ve realised personal finance is like yoga, a no-carbs diet or learning Chinese on Duolingo: It’s hard as all hell at first, but practice can make you flex to the manner born. And the gains? They compound like the best kind of interest.
Nidhi Gupta is a freelance writer and editor based in Mumbai.