Financial literacy was not in my lexicon growing up. It wasn’t something anyone discussed or addressed in my house. This experience is one I have often heard being echoed by other South Asian women, both as a therapist and in my personal life.
Growing up in a South Asian family, being a good daughter was crucial, which was often defined by our level of obedience. I remember hearing that I needed to learn how to cook and clean and like many women of my generation, the emphasis was on my skills of service—not on fostering a sense of independence.
And financial literacy or independence? It was never discussed. The idea was that your parents took care of you now, and later on this would be your husband’s responsibility.
This dynamic inevitably impacts women’s relationship with money and independence as they get older, according to Parween Mander, a millennial money coach who helps South Asian women improve their relationship with their finances.
“Cultural and gender expectations that are placed upon us make it feel like, ‘hey we shouldn’t learn about money anyways, [because] what’s the point?’” said Mander in an interview with 5XPress.
Although we never had open and honest conversations around the complexity of finances, they were an unavoidable part of our lives. Especially if we grew up helping our parents navigate bills and appointments at the bank. We were taught through these experiences the importance of having financial security so that one day we wouldn’t be struggling to make ends meet.
This deepened the unease around what it means to have enough money while also leaving us as women and girls to question whose responsibility the finances were. If financial awareness is so important, why were we never taught the ins and outs as girls? Why as women are we made to feel that we will always be taken care of and therefore don’t need to have financial literacy?
For those of us whose upbringing was more focused on service to others than financial literacy and independence, we may have gone into marriage and adulthood having a convoluted relationship with money. Maybe your parents always provided for you, maybe you never had to think about how much things cost, or maybe no one broached this subject before marriage—and suddenly, you find yourself living in a new house where you are in control of your own finances.
We’ve all heard that knowledge is power, but if we don’t have the knowledge on how to spend, save, or invest, then how can we be expected to enter marriage or adulthood on equal footing with our partners?
But as Mander mentions, financial security is more complex than just having job security—especially for women. Many women may not have the power to leverage money and make independent choices about investments and financial security.
She discussed how not all women “have the financial means to leave,” and money can be the factor that influences their choices to determine the outcome for themselves.
Financial literacy and independence is further complicated by motherhood.
Personally, I had a good relationship with money up until I became a mom. Then, I realized that being a woman and a mother meant I would have to choose between being the parent I wanted to be, or earning a full-time salary. I went from working full-time and being financially comfortable to being on EI during maternity leave, to then finally working part time.
Being the parent who does pick-ups and drop-offs, makes the lunches, does the laundry and cleans up—it’s a big contribution to the marriage and to the relationship, but money always felt more important to me. Despite the emotional and physical labour that goes into being a parent, there is always an uneasiness that comes with not equally contributing to the finances.
The same way that finances often define a man's identity in how he can provide for his family, it also impacts women by reminding us that we are not as financially empowered as we would like to be. Being home with the kids is seen as a luxury by some men whereas for women being at home means they have less income and might feel they need to justify each and every expense.
Mander shared how part of her work as a money coach is also about helping women unpack the shame and lack of self esteem around finances.
“We start to unpack the shame, we start to unpack, why are you spending, why do you feel this anxiety parting with your money? Where is this all stemming from?”
“From here, women begin to realize, ‘I’m not actually bad with money.’ There’s been all these other factors, messages, experiences with money that shape them to behave and make decisions with money the way they are,” she said.
There is also a certain learned bias perpetuated by patriarchal thinking when it comes to women and finances, that causes many of us not to question it.
“Women often feel [like] ‘this is how they’re supposed to be doing it. As women we’re supposed to retail therapy shop, as women we don’t know how to control our money, the men are the ones who are more calm and more in control and don’t overspend.”
This is why when we talk about financial security it’s also important to think about your money going into a relationship.
Have you invested? Have you saved? What are the expectations about bills going forward? What are the expectations about a joint account versus separate? Are you moving in with your partner's family? If so, do they have an expectation about your money?
Have you talked about this?
We are never taught these things, despite them being so crucial.
Being financially secure isn’t just about investing and saving, it's about being aware of the power dynamics within the relationship and family that come with money. In our community, there are unfortunately still some families that have an expectation that their daughter in law's cheque belongs to them.
I’ve heard countless narratives about partners who assume that a joint account is necessary to monitor your transactions—but it’s implied that the woman cannot question her husband’s expenses. This is especially prevalent in cases where the woman might works less or is a stay-at-home mom. As women, we are told this is the way things are.
A wise woman once told me, "your investment might last longer than your husband," and that really stuck. We’ve been sent from our fathers’ houses to our husbands’ houses—at some point we should have been told that we are financially capable individuals who can meet our own needs.
If our children are young and we are widowed, financial security might be the factor that changes how present we can be as a parent. What if the marriage falls apart? What if your spouse falls ill? Financial literacy isn’t just about being independent—it’s also knowing that if shit hits the fan, you have the ability to care for yourself and your family.
It’s not selfish to think of your financial independence—it’s necessary.
“As South Asian daughters we are so used to asking for permission. It extends to how we use our own money. We are not trained to trust ourselves,” said Mander.
It’s time to change this narrative. It’s time to trust ourselves and take our power back by becoming fluent in the language we were denied as young women.
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