Festive sights and sounds fill the air. As I peep out of my balcony, decorative lights are going up at most flats. Those bright and colourful lanterns will shine on well past Diwali, sometimes all the way to the New Year. They hang at literally every balcony. Year after year, how we celebrate is a showcase of how much family finances have gotten better for the normal urban household.
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Aging authors like me cannot help taking the nostalgia trip. But looking back at the 1970s offers some interesting insights on how far we may have come; and the dangers of trying to go back, completely misinterpreting the ‘Atmanirbhar’ sentiment. In those days, festivals caused a strain on family finances. There was an annual bonus that would be announced closer to Diwali. A lot depended on that payout. Buying clothes was a ritual that involved bargain hunting and pulling out treasures from discounted bins with glee. Waiting at the tailor’s shop anxiously, and being heartbroken at the shoddy finish was normal. Crackers were burst in large friends’ groups, so that everyone enjoyed the fun. We competed for whose front yard featured the highest amount of paper trash. Sweets were made in Dalda, conveniently called ghee. Desi ghee was the name for the pure version. Clay diyas, Navratri fasting regimens, decorating with dolls that were stored and reused each year, and buying that occasional appliance for the household were also common.
So much has changed now. Clothes are bought routinely; no one waits for a festive occasion. Tailors are a disappearing tribe, as ready to wear clothes rule. Dry fruits and nuts are used so much, with little worry for their steep prices. Zero per cent consumer loans are the norm, and everyone buys and replaces appliances with abandon. Elaborate meals that feature festival goodies are made on demand, all through the year, that children do not wait for the festivals to eat them. Nor is the rationing of quantities the norm. We have moved on to more ostentatious expenses on jewellery, décor, and large ticket purchases like property. Every event from Karva Chauth to Chhath Pooja is now national, celebrated in grand detail across communities. Evidence of better purchasing power is all around us. We still like a good deal, but our propensity to spend has only moved up over the years.
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The growing health and environment consciousness is welcome. Children do not want to create noise and air pollution bursting crackers. Many are upset with the distress the noises create for domestic animals and to the elderly and the sick. There are regulations on when crackers can be burst. Dalda has moved out to make way for pure ghee, and households pay steep prices for the real stuff. The more health-conscious consumers shun sweets and sugar and stick to basic healthy choices. The ordinary urban middle-class household does not seem to show stress and strain when it comes to festivities and celebrations. Some personal finance thoughts for the festive season – here is a list:
First, make sure that your spends are aligned with your income. It is a good idea to keep a percentage allocation, so you know how much you can realistically afford. If 10% of your annual income is spent in the last three months of the year on festivities, make sure that won’t hurt your long-term goals. Draw that line mentally, get your family’s buy in for the decision, and enjoy the spend as a reward for yourself and your family. Having an overall budget is a good way to stop expenses from compromising other financial goals. It also hopefully motivates conservative spenders to boldly spend their money.
“Make sure that your spends are aligned with your income. It is a good idea to keep a percentage allocation, so you know how much you can realistically afford.”
Second, make a mental distinction between experiences and material objects. When you recall an earlier Dusherra celebration, you are unlikely to remember how pretty that expensive glass bowl you bought looked on your dining table. Quite likely it has given way for something else already. But you will remember how you forgot the rasmalai in the fridge; how your long lost friend found and called you; how you won the family card game; and how much you laughed when your spouse forgot their glasses. What looks like an ordeal usually becomes the most repeated family story. Gather those experiences; don’t let objects take away money and attention.
Third, remember that there is a limit to appreciation and acceptance by strangers. What looks like an appreciation might be laced with jealousy that you have not yet identified. So much of personal finance wastages finds its roots in trying to impress people that don’t matter much in your lives. You might miss identifying the real friends, if all you like is being surrounded by people who will praise and appease you. Do not equate enjoyment with spending money on things and on people only with the intention to impress. Your money has better uses.
How to plan your finances and money this festive season
Fourth, be kind to those less privileged than yourself. In a country with so much of income inequality, an ostentatious display of wealth and money is cruel to the underprivileged. It is nice to be sensitive about these differences. It is even better to open up your heart and your purse to bring some joy to others around you. If donations help those you don’t know, make sure you include those that you know. Give your staff a break and a bonus to enjoy the festival with their families. Do your bit to spread the festive cheer.
Fifth, take a hard look at your hoards that you do not use. That plot of land you never visited; that one room flat you can’t maintain; those expensive clothes you don’t wear anymore; those pieces of jewellery you do not fancy anymore; and those artefacts and objects you have filled your house with. If something isn’t part of your life and your everyday joys, why burden yourself carrying them around? Find the time and the heart to let it all go. You might find better uses for the money that is locked in; or you may find better things to do with your time and effort; or you may realise that the “some other time” that you will use these is not coming up soon. Make the festive season the time to clear up the clutter.
Our joys arrive from unknown sources; our lasting sources of happiness do not always cost money; and our sense of purpose in life might need us to look beyond everyday humdrum. Making it a new life worth living is always your choice, and you can begin any moment.
(The writer is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning)