Illustration by Anand Shenoy for 1 Finance Magazine

The way we think about money, and what we do with it, tends to be shaped heavily by the conversations that have stuck with us from our childhoods and the financial tenets that our culture dictates. In India, money is widely considered a bad word, and yet, a significant chunk of our lives is spent in pursuit of it. When it comes to money, we can never have enough. Still, being vocal about wanting more can come with layers of unease and shame, but maybe that doesn’t have to be the case. It’s fine to want more.

Commonly held notions about money — that we should only aim to earn enough to satisfy our needs, that greed for money clouds moral judgement, or that money distracts from what is important in life — might be rooted in some degree of truth, but shouldn’t shape how we build and approach our personal finances.

Hofstede Insights — a consulting agency, headquartered in Helsinki, Finland, that studies how culture impacts work and life in several countries — describes India as a culture of restraint. This translates to people having strong control over their desires, believing that their actions are restricted by social norms, and displaying a tendency to be cynical — especially about the gratification of desires. This could help explain why one of the most pervasive desires — that of money — is also among the most condemned in this part of the world.

This contradiction has also been attributed to India’s pre-liberalisation socialist leanings. As author Shreyasi Singh, whose book The Wealth Wallahs explores India’s wealth management industry and documents attitudes towards wealth among the country’s emerging rich, writes for Scroll, “Through most of the seventy years that we have been an independent nation, we have lived in the worthy pursuit of having ‘just enough’. A craving and indulgence for wealth have neither been encouraged, nor been possible, in a socialist economy where the government controlled and regulated private enterprise.” Her survey of around 60 high-net-worth individuals in India revealed that almost 55% of them made a deliberate effort to underplay their wealth — 26% of them did so due to society’s attitude towards money.

Financial psychologist Dr Brad Klontz, through his work on money scripts — unconscious, generational beliefs about money that are learned during childhood and impact financial outcomes over the course of one’s life — explores this phenomenon in more detail. One of the four scripts, money avoidance, identifies people for whom money is a source of fear, disgust, or anxiety — they tend to think that money is bad, the rich are greedy and corrupt, and living with less is a virtue. His research finds that these beliefs don’t serve them well — money avoiders are likely to have poor financial health, low net worth, and less income because they are at higher risk of overspending, hoarding, compulsive buying, and poor budgeting, among other reasons.

The path to overcoming limiting beliefs systems and toxic money traits begins with accepting that growing your wealth is a natural and just desire. Jason Brennan, Director of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics at Georgetown University, in the introduction to his book It’s OK to Want to Be Rich, puts it best: “I think the finger-wagging moralists have it wrong — or at least have exaggerated their case. Money is the greatest of all human inventions. Loving money, wanting more stuff, and wanting to be rich isn’t just normal, but perfectly reasonable. These desires needn’t and don’t usually debase you or make you a bad person. If you despise money and making money, the problem is usually that you don’t understand what money is, what it does for us, and what it takes to make it.”

Money is a medium of exchange — a means to an end — and it is understood that it can only offer happiness to a certain extent. Earning more helps prepare for emergencies, combat inflation, and most importantly, supports financial freedom — besides, of course, contributing to the economy at large. On the other hand, higher levels of wealth have been associated with moral entitlement and unethical behaviour. What we know for sure is that money, by itself, is neither good nor evil. It matters what you do with it.

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