For South Asians, Money Talk With Family Can Be Difficult — but It's Crucial

Getty | Dmytro Synelnychenko Pakin Songmor Francesco Carta fotografo Gary Yeowell simonkr; Photo Illustration: Becky Jiras
Getty | Dmytro Synelnychenko Pakin Songmor Francesco Carta fotografo Gary Yeowell simonkr; Photo Illustration: Becky Jiras

The rules of the game for smart saving have changed. Enter: Money Moves, where we're tackling everything you need to know about personal finances.

"A woman should never earn more than her husband."

It's a phrase I heard often growing up in Pakistan, and one that irked me to no end. It always bothered me that women were seen as being unable to be independent, that earning their own money was always somewhat looked down upon. This was made worse by the fact that this phrase was coming from people who were more progressive than those who believed women should not work at all.

So despite the fact that many women around me started small businesses of their own — from baking to designing jewelry to gift-wrapping — all of them seemed to humble themselves when talking about their work. They'd distance themselves from the idea they were doing it "for the money," and instead called their work a hobby. Growing up, it made me scared to talk about the career aspirations I had, and then it made me determined to prove that I could work just as hard as a man. Eventually, that constant pressure burned me out.

For a long time, I understood norms around money were just another way in which patriarchy in South Asian culture attempts to control women, and in many ways that is true. But I've realized it's also much more than that, and it's not limited to women alone. As South Asian money expert Parween Mander wrote in 2021: "[sons] are seen as a parent's future and a daughter is a liability." Both entrenched roles create different kinds of difficulties for children and parents when it comes to navigating financial conversations, literacy, and independence.

[W]ith connected families come connected finances.

"I have clients who have shifted to another country [from South Asia] and still can't express to their parents that they want something. So when they get a job and have to make decisions on their own, they're incapable of doing that because their parents haven't taught them to make those decisions," says Ishangi Mishra, a behavioral researcher who works with clients whose mental health has been affected by financial issues. "Whether financial independence or something else, the whole flaw I feel is communication."

Joint families — in which couples live with the husband's parents and sometimes even their siblings-in-law — are common in South Asian culture. And with connected families come connected finances. This joining of finances can come in different forms, whether it's multiple children (usually sons) working within the same family business, or children providing for their parents' welfare. Within these families, it is usually the men who work, while the women are homemakers (and thus depend on their partners for money). Those partners in turn are often financially dependent on or at least financially tied to their fathers or brothers, which can make it very difficult for women in particular to make independent financial decisions.

"In India, we value family, and a lot of decisions made are dependent on collectivism," explains Nisha Prakash, PhD, a lecturer at the University of East London. She adds that cultural norms around avoiding risk-taking often shape financial decision-making. "When [older people] give us their suggestions, it's usually a traditional risk appetite they are talking from — things like traditional investments, not taking loans, etc., and there is a cultural reason for that, because resources were always limited."

"The only time we talk about money is when there's distress."

When children do try to do things on their own, parents can be left feeling betrayed. It means that many young men in their 20s and 30s find themselves frustrated and stuck because they are unable to make the financial decisions they want to make or venture into new business ideas. "The only time we talk about money is when there's distress, so when parents talk about it, it often seems like they want to control, versus when kids talk about it, it seems they can't manage it or they need help," Prakash adds.

Even in circles I would consider educated and progressive, money has always been a difficult conversation. I've found myself feeling awkward talking about my own earnings, and the general sentiment around me is the same. This means money is either talked about in distress, like Prakash says, or simply as a status symbol, with few constructive conversations around financial literacy that could actually help our generation deal with money better.

For women, this is only compounded. Not being "allowed" to earn for themselves and being dependent on their husbands or in-laws can make them feel awkward about talking about money, and when they do talk about it or want to earn and spend on themselves, it can lead to adverse reactions from family members. Their dependence also makes them more susceptible to economic abuse.

I know women who don't know what they'd do if they found themselves alone or without their partner's support. And for women for whom financial dependence means they can't leave abusive situations, the entire cultural structure can create a threat to their mental and physical health. In the worst-case scenarios, women endure physical and emotional abuse because they have no one else who can support them or their children.

Sociologist Supriya Shah, who's worked extensively on economic abuse, says that part of normalizing financial independence includes communicating about money in a way that's empowering for individuals rather than becoming a source of conflict. "What we've found in our work on economic abuse is that talking about the role of money in strengthening relationships plays an important role in preventing family violence as part of economic abuse," she explains.

It's crucial that we realize that older generations will see things differently.

But in addressing these difficult norms, it's also important to acknowledge the importance of family in our communities. To say that everything we hold dear should be pushed to the side to make way for something new is not fair or realistic. As someone who works and has open communication with my partner regarding finances, I'm very aware that my position is one of privilege and out of the norm, and yet still both my partner and I find ourselves needing to carefully navigate these conversations with our elders because their views are different from ours.

It's crucial that we realize that older generations will see things differently — and I've learned over the years that showing rather than telling works better. It hit me most the day my grandfather — a man who was extremely conservative about women studying and working when I was younger — called me to him when he had some friends over so he could tell them that I worked for international magazines and how much he loved reading my work. I'd never talked to him about the importance of women working, but in that moment, I knew his perspective had shifted because he'd seen what was possible.

That's why it all comes back to opening up the opportunity to talk about these issues with our loved ones. Both Shah and Prakash advocate for pushing for financial conversations in a way that prioritizes relationships rather than creating further isolation.

"If we want to raise financially aware young adults, it's important that we talk to kids about money much, much earlier. I'm a big advocate of financial literacy in schools, because that helps them have these conversations and become curious initially to prepare them for having difficult conversations with parents," Prakash says.

The fact that men and women fight such different battles on this front complicates things further, but that doesn't mean we should ignore it. In my own experience, introducing the conversation only normalizes it. It may take time, but patience and persistence can help bridge the generational and gender gap — and create healthier relationships to money for us all.

Anmol Irfan is a Muslim Pakistani freelance journalist and editor. Her work focuses on global gender justice, climate, religion, and more, with a focus on South Asia.