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Friday, 24 September 2010

At what price financial freedom

[The following article written by me was published in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, on March 7, 2009]


A large number of women are now financially independent and see no need to maintain joint financial accounts with their partners. How wise is this, wonders Maullika Sharma

An increasing number of young and not-so-young couples go for marital counselling these days. While this is a disturbing trend for most, who commonly interpret it to mean that couples are having more problems, I tend to discount their scepticism and believe this is healthy. It means more people are willing to work on their relationships. It also means that less than satisfactory relationships are not acceptable any more.

However, there are some trends that I do find disturbing in today's couples. An important one on that list is how couples choose to treat their finances. A larger number of women are now active and equal participants in the workplace. They earn as much as (and sometimes more than) their partners. They are financially independent and see no need to maintain joint financial accounts.

He has his bank account and credit card. She has hers. They split the costs of running the house and bringing up the kids 50:50. He splurges on himself, without a care in the world. She does the same. Not having to ask the partner before indulging oneself is the biggest payoff. This is fine during good times. What about the bad times?  What if one partner loses his job temporarily, or has a slump in her business?

Taking an even longer term view, what happens if one partner gets disabled? Can he/she assume that the healthy partner will take care of him/her? And if that is the expectation then is that an unreasonable expectation in a marriage?

Complicating matters?

These and a million other questions come to the mind when couples say they manage their finances independently.

Sometimes, in an attempt to guard our space we make even simple things complicated. Today, it is a matter of pride that women are earning as much as men and so want to be, and rightly so, treated as equals. A marriage, however, should ideally be a relationship of two equals, irrespective of who is earning how much.

Is financial independence, as defined by independent bank accounts, credit cards and savings, the basis for equality in a marriage? Is such financial independence the only way to protect your space in a relationship?
Let's consider the relationship of Rashmi and Suresh — young IT professionals earning equally well. They decided to keep their finances separate to maintain their independence. Initially the arrangement worked well and they were happy.

Then Suresh's brother’s marriage was fixed and Suresh needed to contribute towards the wedding. Suresh and Rashmi didn't really need to 'talk' about it, because it was his obligation and he decided how much to contribute. Rashmi neither got involved, nor felt it was any of her business. An opportunity for 'communication' and building a joint goal in the marriage was lost. Suresh worked extra hard, and saved extra hard, to meet his extra financial commitment. Rashmi continued to shop and splurge. She wanted to look stunning at the wedding and that was her only financial need. How would the scenario be different if his money was theirs, and her money was also theirs? First, Suresh would have to 'communicate' with Rashmi. He would have told her how much he wanted to give; he would have needed to check if she was okay with that; they would have to negotiate and arrive at an amount that was comfortable for both of them; they would then both have to work and save extra hard to meet their joint commitment.
Control or let go

What would it mean for their relationship? They would feel joint ownership for the 'project' — Suresh would feel supported; Rashmi would feel more connected to Suresh. It would facilitate the building of trust between them.
Second, it would force Suresh to first consider their financial situation in its totality, and his financial obligations to his family (with Rashmi), before making a commitment for the wedding. It'd force Rashmi to think beyond her individual needs. Could this mutual consideration be such a bad thing after all?

It may initially be really hard for either partner to 'let go' of their need to 'control' all their money. If one partner is a spendthrift, while the other is a miser, every amount spent, or not spent, by the other partner, may lead to heightened emotions. Gradually you learn to 'trust' the way your partner handles money. And, hopefully that trust will seep into other areas of your relationship as well. Trust has the potential to become a 'learnt' behaviour — a habit hard to shake off.

And in a lighter vein, you may suddenly stop waiting for the Rs 1,000 bouquet on Valentine's Day because you realise you are the one paying for it anyway! It is my opinion that the loss of an opportunity for improved communication in a marriage, an increased level of financial commitment to the family, and a greater level of trust between the partners are too high a price to pay for one's financial independence.

For me, the loss of an opportunity for improved communication in a marriage, an increased level of financial commitment to the family, and a greater level of trust between the partners are too high a price to pay for one’s financial independence. Twenty years into my marriage I couldn’t imagine it being any other way. Not because, my earnings now are a meager percentage of what my husband earns, but because we started out our relationship that way - when the difference in our earnings was inconsequential, and my cumulative savings were significantly higher than his. It was my husband’s vision and I ‘gave in’ (maybe a bit reluctantly at first). Experience has shown me its many benefits.

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