Everyone of us has a relationship with this one thing in our lives. And that relationship needs a lot of work. It is a complicated relationship which very few have learned how to deal with. It has ruined men, women, families, kingdoms, societies and right now it is ruining this planet.
The relationship I am talking about is the one we have with money. A person’s relationship with money is intimate, yet complicated. We are taught many things in our childhood, but no one really teaches us how to have a good relationship with money. We watch our parents, and other people and learn how to deal with money. Sometimes this learning is good, and sometimes it gets us nowhere. This post is about the complicated relationship I have with money, and how it started getting messy.
On the outside I am a professionally successful salaried individual. With the kind of money that hits the bank account at the end of every month, I cannot complain about my lower middle class upbringing. Maybe I have managed to move up the social hierarchy by an inch. Maybe I am now upper middle class. I honestly don’t know. Because, the truth is that on the inside, the pursuit of money has left me with a void that I don’t know how to fill. I have insecurities around my bank balance, and my interpersonal relationships have taken a hit due to misplaced priorities.
I grew up in a nuclear, middle class family in the 80s, in a big metro city down South. My dad was a hard working, salaried employee. His family was large. When he lost his job at the prime of his career, his siblings were there for him. He sailed though it emotionally, although it hit us financially. But me? It shook up my world and I had nobody to talk to about. Being the only child, I only had friends to share my life with. And the lack of money in the household meant that I was slowly distancing myself from friends. Thus began my complicated relationship with money.
If you look up what they say about Saggitarians, you’ll read that we free spirits without a care for material possessions. We don’t like money as much as we like the idea of what money can do for us. My life’s mantra has always been ‘experience more.’ So when I asked my parents pocket money, it wasn’t to go waste it on eating out or watching movies like my friends in school did. It was to see what it is that they enjoyed about eating out and watching movies. So once I knew what it was about, I could move on. Unfortunately I never got the pocket money to understand that. And thus, my experience about many things in life was stunted.
We never could afford a car for a very long time. When my dad finally got one in his new job, it was taken away in a few months by the people who had loaned money to the company he had just joined, because they had defaulted. I never did foreign trips. Never saw the inside of a plane till my first job (interview). Hardly hung out in malls. I had a huge fight with my parents for my first walkman. My dad constantly criticised me for buying audio tapes although music was my solace and escape from a world I couldn’t fit into. To top it all, my parents were forever tying good marks to money, and telling me that if I don’t do well in school, I would be a failure for life.
I was never keen on sports, but my parents forced me to attend tennis and swimming classes. As a teenager, I wanted to learn music, but my parents wanted me to take tuitions instead. Finally, I was forced into studying engineering in a college located in a remote village, because that was what my parents wanted for me. My professionally unsuccessful father was trying to dictate how I should live life based on his failures, which in my opinion was dumb.
Meanwhile, my friends from school were getting dropped to school in cars, eating samosas and chat in the evening after school and making merry on weekends hanging out in malls. They didn’t have to worry about good grades, because they knew their parents had money to send them abroad, or they would take up family businesses. By the time they graduated to college, they were driving their own cars, hanging out in pubs, playing pool, and generally doing everything which society deemed as cool. Why did I have such friends? It was because my parents put me in a school with wealthy kids. I had concluded as a young person that not having enough money was the root cause of all the unhappiness in the world.
When I got my first job, I was thrilled that I no longer had to ask my parents for money. I was excited that I could finally do what I wanted to do with MY own money. And I had a big backlog of experiences which I had missed out on, to explore with MY own money. Thus began the second phase of my difficult relationship with money.
What nobody tells you, and what you will only figure out if you are smart enough, is that a country’s economy can be kept running only if there is a critical mass of people in the rat race of earning a salary. You and I are part of that critical mass, and will stay there forever unless we take on some risks. Found a job after college? Time to gets started with EMIs to keep you tied to that job for long. Happy that you got a better job? Inflation will catch up in no time and your 20% hike will soon mean nothing. Kids settled down and one thing less to worry about? Medical bills will bring you back to reality. Basically, earning a salary = being a slave for life.
When I got my first salary, I was so happy that I could live life on MY own terms because I was finally earning MY own money. I couldn’t ream of trading that freedom for anything else. I didn’t have to listen to what my parents said anymore. After those pay checks starting hitting the bank account, I couldn’t look beyond them. The money I was earning was the only solid foundation I ever had in life. All the years before that were nothing but a nightmare with no beautiful memories. So, I played safe when it came to my career. Holding on to my job was the most important thing. By god’s grace and some luck, I managed to move from one good organisation to another. Playing safe meant that my skills, personal branding, and street smartness were all stunted. I lived in a cocoon whose walls were only as thick as my bank balance.
There is a phrase, which goes like this: “A Salary is the Drug They Give You to Forget Your Dreams.” I was on this drug too, and it was pretty potent because what I earned was disproportionate to my personal (not career) ambitions. All I ever wanted was to have enough money to experience things in life I never got a chance to experience as a child.
When my marriage failed, it meant that I didn’t have a child’s future to worry about. The more I earned, the more I managed to spend in spite of not having the regular responsibilities of people of my age. My priorities in life were totally messed up because the effects of the drug was pretty damaging.
But every drug addicted soon realises that he is only fooling himself and to the world, by hiding from the truth. By the time I had this realisation it was too late. It was too late for me to leave my job for higher education or upskilling. It was too late in my life to untangle myself from the corporate web. It was too late to go from earning a fixed amount at the end of the month to not drawing a salary (to start a business, or study further).
I never had a high opinion about my parents because I never saw either of them achieve anything worthwhile. Yes, they did all they could to provide for me – but when they expected me to be someone I am not, why shouldn’t I have excepted the same form them? When I look at people around me, acting entitled because of their family wealth, I only wonder how different my life would have been if I had some financial security from my parents. I laugh at all those inspirational stories where kids praise their parents for making them what they are. For me, my parents were mediocre, clueless individuals. They neither accomplished anything in life, nor let me do what I wanted to.
Although I put my parents into the same bucket, they were both different individuals. And their shortcomings had a nuclear fusion like effect on me. My dad was hardworking , straightforward, and generally well liked in the family, but he had a terrible temper. My mom is an animated lady, who can never stop talking about how much someone else has, or what someone else is up to (even now). Unfortunately, in spite of all the talk, she has never had the courage to take up a job or lead from the front, in any sphere of life. To me, my dad’s temper and mom’s animated nature outshone anything positive about them.
At this point, you may have concluded that my complicated relationship is not with money, but with my parents. If my parents had told me, “son, these are your strengths. Focus on them, and you will achieve something in life,” I would have probably focused on what I have, instead of what I don’t. But instead, my parents always said, “Son, money is important and we don’t have enough of it. You better do what we say, because you are no good at x,y,z.” I am sure that like my parents, many other parents have said or done things based on the insecurity around money.
Thankfully, I have reached a stage in life where I theoretically know what options salaried people like me have to grow money (think equities). I also no longer feel like I have missed out on things in life because I have spent a lot of time following my passion of travel and photography. I still have a long way to go before money can start giving me a sense of security, and fulfilment. If it ever happens, I will truly believe that I have rearranged the equation I have with my bank balance.