Money matters, money mantra, moolah mill…these are terms that seem to be uppermost on everybody’s mind these days, more so than ever before, and I am no exception. We are living in times that resemble a labyrinthine maze, at the centre of which is the Money Minotaur a mythological figure that is half man-half bull, interestingly!) that must be tamed by fair means or foul. However, the Indian attitude to money is influenced by certain aspects of culture.
This attitude is basically governed by the fact that India is perceived by both people inside and outside as a poor country, we grow up seeing poverty all around us. Naked, hungry children roaming the streets, poor, homeless people begging, are all a common sight in almost any city. An astounding one third of their population is below the poverty line, two thirds are middle to upper class, and .001% of the whole population consists of high net-worth individuals [HNI’s]. This general atmosphere of gloom kind of puts a fear of sorts towards money and wealth in our minds, fear in the sense of wanting to protect what we have, of an undue concern for the so called ‘rainy day’. I'm mainly talking of middle class working Indians here-the class to which I belong and therefore know well. Most middle class Indians live by this. This does not mean that other cultures don't want to protect their money, but Indians take it to a whole other level. Budgeting, saving and all are very important values that are instilled in Indian kids growing up from very early on. I have often wondered, if the West is more obsessed with money or are we Indians more obsessed? My exposure to the West has been in brief snatches and may be called second hand at best although throughout my professional life I have had to deal with foreigners, people from Europe, in particular. The only Americans I know are Indian Americans who are in any case a hybrid of their Indian roots and their American circumstances. In my experience many Indians who live abroad, even though are well-off financially, are still dedicated to save every dime, and have heard that Indians usually get termed as misers or stingy. But this all hearsay, so I really cannot tell.
The practice of frugality implies that one should try to stay within his/ her means. However, the term Indian does not refer to a monolith. There are of course regional variations to the general attitude to money. For instance, in Bengal, the state I hail from, the pursuit of money is considered somewhat evil. The general aim is to make enough money to make ends meet and nothing beyond. If you happen to be an exception to that rule then society takes a second look at you and you generally become the subject of discussion. This probably is not true for Indians hailing from states such Gujarat and Rajasthan where generally the risk appetite is more and therefore business is seen as a viable means to making money that is not just enough but much more than that or in UP, Punjab and Haryana, where the show of opulence is more than evident at weddings etc. In the southern states where I have been living for the past few years, I see a caste-driven attitude to money. The Brahmins are more cautious about money and generally look at well-paying jobs as the means for livelihood, whereas other castes have more access to inheritance in terms of real estate and gold. But on the whole the Indian attitude to money is that it is scarce and therefore to be protected.
Another reason why Indians focus on saving so much is culturally they have obligations to fulfill, towards their parents and kids. It's not just limited to raising kids and providing for their needs, in most middle class households, it means that parents must fully fund their kids' education, no matter how expensive, and their weddings. In addition they may have to look after their aging parents, provide money for their needs, and fund illnesses if any as the concept of proper insurance is yet to catch up in India.
Now, why is it that Indians have a cultural obligation towards providing for their kids and parents? Traditionally, Indians lived in joint families, where brothers and their wives and their kids and their parents all lived together as one unit, where individual incomes and wealth were pooled together and combined as the family’s wealth. It then got distributed down to the next generation. Even though in modern times, the joint family is all but gone, the mentality does still continue, of the wealth being that of the family, and not just the individual, this even though most of the people have self-earned wealth and very little to nothing that's inherited . Indian parents continue to think that everything they have belongs to their children eventually, and the children have a right over it. Parents consider expenses such as education, wedding, even housing for their children as their responsibility. It's not an uncommon thing for some parents to buy a piece of property or house for their kids, when they get married, in fact some parents do so to be modern, or show that they are broad -minded, insofar as they don't expect their son and his new wife, to move in with them, and are okay with them setting up their own separate household.
I know people who have taken loans for their kids’ education. Children taking a student loan on their own is unheard of, except in some cases, where the kids go abroad to study, and know they'll be making good money after graduating, enough to pay off the loan soon . But for exposure to other cultures, I really would never have realized that there are countries/cultures in the world where parents do not have to pay for everything. Whereas earlier I looked at it from an angle that, people choose to have kids, so they should pay for them, now, I too see the drawbacks in the practice and have tried sharing my perspective on this issue [that children, once they are young adults, should be able to fund their own education, set up their own establishment and move out, and in so doing become more responsible individuals, etc] only to be told that they are too radical and therefore not applicable in India. I do however, see some change in the attitudes of my contemporaries, so slowly but surely there is a shift in mindset occurring, whether it will be enough to raise a generation of Indians who don't run to mom/dad for money issues...only time will tell.