When I met the 83-year-old lady, she frequently referred to her generous pension. Her children were doing well and she was taking turns to live with her two sons, flying between two cities every six months. She said she could afford the tickets easily and carry gifts that she ordered online. “It is easy for me, but I am so bored,” she complained.
“Why would you not stay at a facility for elders,” I asked. She was absolutely shocked. “Why should I? My sons take good care of me and I don’t have to live like an orphan,” she argued. “Won’t you get the company of many others like you, with conversations, friendships and many new activities to pursue independently,” I asked. She told me she disliked the idea of living independently like that. Her son later told me that the ‘generous pension’ wouldn’t be enough for her to do that. “Let her live with us and feel rich,” he said.
As I was returning home, the denial about financial independence struck me. There are so many situations in which it is easier to live in a household and feel rich, instead of living independently and facing the realities of how far one’s income would actually go. I recall long lines outside the STD booths in our postgraduate days in the early 1980s. While we waited in line to make calls to our parents, we all heard various versions of pleas for more money to spend. Whatever was sent as a fixed allowance was seldom enough; not if one more movie or eating out had to be accommodated. Asking for a subsidy was normal for most of us; that was the mindset. Then and, perhaps, now too.
In India, grown-up children live with their parents, especially if they are unmarried or working in the same city as the parents, or both. No one discusses the possibility that the young may not be earning enough to be living independently. When my friend’s daughter moved to a PG accommodation within the city, she seemed fine with her smallish bedroom and its tiny balcony. However, my friend was torn between guilt and anger that their fancy three-bedroom apartment was scorned by the youngster. We approve dependence and its consequences for most part.
We attach a string of emotions and virtuosity to what should be normal and everyday financial decisions. Living within one’s means should be a goal grown-ups of all ages should be encouraged to pursue. Instead, we celebrate all forms of subsidies from the family, and have a variety of outcomes, including entitlement and resentment. When this privileged and protected young child grows up, keeping the elderly parent at home with him is a normal expectation. We mix gratitude, virtue, duty, obligation, love, care and such emotions to a heady cocktail of denial, conflict and resentment. We also insist that it is not about money. Maybe we refuse to see it as a personal finance problem for the household.
My cousin resents the fact that her son and daughter-in-law do not contribute enough to the household’s finances. They offer a fixed sum monthly, while the parents run the household. The schoolgoing grandchildren are taken care of by my cousin and her husband. Family outings sometimes involve the elders, but mostly don’t. My cousin resents the delivery packets that her son won’t let her touch.
“Why don’t you encourage them to move out,” I ask. “They can’t afford it,” she says, with a mix of love, guilt and regret I can’t fully comprehend.
Household finances are strained by care-giving, whether we accept it or not. The problem is that we find it very difficult to draw the line. We are also culturally so attuned to living together and caring for one another that the difficulties in doing so are accepted and borne as graciously as possible. Not everything can be measured with money, we argue. My cousin would be insulted and shocked if her son paid her babysitting fee. She would rather suffer and endure. Nor can the 83-year-old elder pay her wealthy son a fixed amount every month for her upkeep while she stays with him.
We may not have reached the breaking point, but we know that, wherever possible, financial independence and separation of households into independent entities is happening widely. Married couples routinely live by themselves; grown-up children are moving out of parental homes after finding a job; the elderly are buying and renting units in retirement homes; and parents refuse to travel abroad to function as unpaid babysitters and housekeepers. It’s just that a large number still suffers the burden they would rather deny than accept and change. Therefore, an honest personal finance evaluation of the burdens of joint living households is mandatory.
What are the options while we deal with the demands on household finances? First, initiate and foster a transparent household financial pooling system, to which every member contributes. There is no need to quibble about whether more household help should be hired, or who ate more fruit, but everyone knows and shares the wages and grocery bills that are part of the common pool. Many apps enable such sharing easily.
Second, keep the identifiable personal expenses outside the common pool. Loans, savings, investments are all paid and funded by one’s own finances, without impacting the household budget. So are personal outings, holidays, clothes, accessories and gadgets.
Third, keep gifting and freebies to the minimum. They are the source of discontent, when one tries to overtly subsidise the other. Respect others in the household and let them enjoy the agency of living their lives as they wish.
If each one of the above basic rules create conflicts and quarrels, the household is ready to split and is artificially held together to subsidise one in favour of the other. If all these are a breeze, the household is either wealthy enough to not care or continues to deny its burdens. Take a moment for a realistic evaluation; it may be worth it.
(The author IS CHAIRPERSON, CENTRE FOR INVESTMENT EDUCATION AND LEARNING)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)