As a money coach from a South Asian family, I’ve seen how cultural narratives keep young women from building wealth

As a money coach from a South Asian family, I’ve seen how cultural narratives keep young women from building wealth

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  • As a woman in South Asian culture, I was taught that I wasn’t supposed to be good with money.
  • Women in my culture are taught to be “good,” and that has financial implications.
  • We have to unlearn harmful narratives to achieve financial independence.

It was a summer night, Bhangra music bumping in the background of my cousin’s pre-wedding celebration. An aunty came up and asked me what I did for work. I had no idea who she was, but I was accustomed to random aunties and their questions. 

When I told her about my work in finance and running a business, she replied, “You shouldn’t get too busy with your career; that’s what your husband will do. How can you manage a household and a business at the same time? Your responsibility is to become a good housewife.”

In fact, I can recall several conversations with aunties in our community advocating that we younger South Asian girls just “marry a rich Indian boy, from a good family.” 

When it comes to South Asian women’s relationship with money and their ability to attain financial agency, it’s important to understand cultural context. Any differences are often overlooked in the landscape of traditional personal finance advice. 

“Our culture has countless strict gender roles, one of which is that men manage money and women don’t,” Aashka Piprottar, the founder of Boss Betis, told me over email. “So while men get to discuss money openly and proudly, women, if they ever discuss it, do so in hushed, quick voices.”

Those gender roles convinced Aashka from a young age “that I was just destined to be ‘bad with money’ and I would just have to rely on my father — and then in the future, probably my husband — to manage the money for me,” she said. 

How being a ‘good’ daughter impacts our finances 

As daughters, we were constantly bombarded with messages of being “good and honorable” growing up. To be good, however, meant being of service to others no matter the cost or inconvenience to us. 

This shows up in financial enabling — a money disorder where we overcompensate and provide for others financially, even if it harms our ability to save or attain our financial goals. We use money as a way to people please, so whenever our parents ask us for money or we’re told to send money to a random relative back in India, we will comply — even if it hurts us financially. 

“It became standard to try and pick up the bill, even when I knew I couldn’t afford to, because this was something I’d seen up front and center in South Asian culture. I footed the bill for family members for things like car payments, eating out, shopping expenses, and buying gifts when I wasn’t in a position to,” said Natasha Khawja, the founder of Purpose and Chai. 

“I think a lot of it was centered around the idea of people pleasing and trying to ensure others were happy, even if I was doing so at the detriment of my own finances,” she added. “Many of these financial decisions were often based on guilt.” 

Some daughters are also prohibited from working a part-time job. If they do work, they are forced to either share a bank account with a parent or contribute to the household financially, both of which inhibit financial agency. 

One of my financial coaching clients, whom I’ll call Anaya, struggled to set financial boundaries with her father, who would ask for a portion of her full time income and reviewed her bank statements, asking where her money was going. This made it difficult for her to assert financial independence and work towards her goals of moving out, as her family constantly got in the way. 

How to be ‘good’ while building financial independence

“Growing up seeing so many examples of women in our community stuck in toxic or abusive situations due to a lack of financial agency, I realized how financial independence could play a strong role in protecting us from these situations in the future,” Aashka said. 

She added that she’s unlearned the harmful money narratives of her childhood through working in the wealth management and financial wellness space.

Some of us may feel strongly about providing our parents with money, as they’ve sacrificed a lot to build a life for us in another country. By age 27, I built a $150,00 net worth, and part of that journey is so I can provide for myself and my parents without feeling overwhelmed. 

But remember, we need to put on our own financial oxygen masks first. I recommend starting a specific savings goal in an account titled “Parent fund” where you can stash away money for your family in the event they need it. This is a way to set a financial boundary so that you don’t feel resentful or sabotaged if they require funds from you. 

Understanding the complexity of our culture, I helped my client, Anaya, set up strategic savings accounts to separate her money, while still contributing funds when her parents asked for it.

Cultural expectations and narratives play a huge role in our ability as South Asian women to make different decisions, especially when it comes to our money and building wealth.

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