Set limits when it comes to helping others financially to avoid resentment later, says Uma Shashikant
We don’t accept inequality easily. It seems unfair that someone else is prettier; has a better job; found a better partner and so on. Socialism was built on this ideal of making it all equal for everyone. And it spectacularly failed. But we also dislike capitalism for the income divide it creates. My concern this week is not about these paradigms; it is about dealing with one specific response to wealth: entitlement.
There was a time when jobs were tough to find; families struggled with poverty, bringing up multiple children and dealing with restrictive social structures. My maternal uncle was one of 11 siblings. He studied diligently through searing poverty and topped the university. He went on to get a good job and high income. But he and his immediate family did not live the life that his earning and status would have enabled. He supported the extended family, helping all his siblings in every which way he could. No one paused to ask if this was fair. The family felt entitled to the money he earned and it was expected of him to do what he did.
Readers born in the 1940s and 50s will identify with this story. Responsibilities of getting the sisters married; educating the younger siblings; paying off family loans; taking care of the sick and the elderly and such fell disproportionately on members of the family that earned better. We glorified this sacrifice and made it a virtue until it all fell apart with piled up resentment.Joint family systems have broken up. Not everyone willingly shares their incomes with siblings anymore. But entitlement lives on.
Everyone has an opinion about how someone better off must use their income. Even if we resent anyone else telling us what we should do with ours. The wealthy must not show off, we reprimand; they must not live ostentatiously, we judge; they are insensitive if they enjoy their wealth, we moan. Wealth must have been acquired by denying someone else, we like to argue. As if it were a zero sum game. Wealth must have come from dubious ways we charge, even if it is legitimately earned and entirely subject to taxes. Wealth must enable charity, we say and we discount acts of giving that may have happened without announcement.
Listen to the rags to riches and back to rags stories of film stars, lottery ticket winners, and such other starkly high income earners who lost their wealth. They would be surrounded by relatives and friends that systematically leached off the wealth or led them to poor quality investments. The man who won the first round of Kaun Banega Crorepati admitted that he bought houses for siblings and funded their businesses before losing his winnings and returning to his old job in a few years. Easy money belongs to everyone—that seems to be the credo.
We have dealt with situations of credit card debt in the extended family. There have been business failures and bankruptcies. Some have been serious enough for creditors to be yelling at the door. Funds were pooled to bail the affected parties, even if everyone privately resented it. And then the errant debtor went back to his ways and accumulated some more debt.
It also seems that paying their rent, educating their children, marrying their girls off, were all joint responsibilities of the extended family. Because the others had money and were expected to come in to help. Not everyone behaves entitled. There are sterling examples of grace and dignity in poverty around us. There are many who are content with their situation and feel no resentment or envy about someone else who is better off. But dealing with others that feel entitled to one’s private and personal wealth is a problem many face. Even if they don’t talk about it. How does one ring-fence and keep some semblance of control?
First, do not disclose your earnings, income or wealth. No one other than your spouse and children at an appropriate age need to know. What you give is always measured with respect to what you make. In itself, a gift of 50,000 at a relative’s wedding is substantial. It might be bigger than what others gave. But if it is known that you earn Rs.5 lakh every month that is seen as too little.
Second, keep control and equity about who will receive your charities. Someone is not ahead of the queue only because they are related to you or your spouse. You make the decision because it is your money and you know who deserves it. Putting a dozen poor children through college is better than enabling a sibling to upgrade their car. You don’t have to justify that decision.
Third, money given away to those around you who behave with a sense of entitlement is almost never returned. You mostly lose the money and the relationship if you asked. Earmark an amount you can afford to write off. Limit your commitment to that amount and no more.
Fourth, do not respond to a request for funds with an immediate yes or no. The yes will be seen as too willing; the no will be seen as too rude. Try a response like: let me think about this and come back to you. That gives you the time and those that were taking a shot at asking may not come back. Just as we do not invest in a do-it-right-now investment option, giving also need not be an immediate response.
Fifth, do not try to use your money to buy friendships and relationships. A very common mistake that the moneyed make is to use the power of their wealth to be surrounded by followers and ego massaging yes men. These are poor investments. None of these last when your money is gone. You are aware of your importance in the family due to your wealth; learn to use it wisely.
Sixth, make rules that indicate how you will decide whom to support. Keep it equitable between both spouses. Discuss how you will support both parents; how you will contribute to old age support and hospitalizations; and so on. Identify specific causes like education and the limits you will go towards funding it. Allocate a percentage of your earnings and be gracious about it to the outside world, but clear and rule based within the household.
Giving, caring and sharing are virtues. Don’t confuse ability with willingness. Everyone has a line of generosity. Identify and stay within that limit, crossing which creates resentment. Don’t try to play God.
(Uma Shashikant, CHAIRPERSON, CENTRE FOR INVESTMENT EDUCATION AND LEARNING)