Three advantages of not disclosing your income to all
Just as it is inappropriate to ask for the income of the other, it is obscene to talk about your income and make it public information.
The parents had come half way across the world to attend their son’s graduation. As we spoke about the good old days, the father recalled his first job and the modest salary he handed over to his mother. However, their son was not even willing to tell them how much he was going to be paid. Should they really know?
It is not uncommon for wives to discuss the income and perks their husbands earn. Many of us have overheard children talking about parental income. Mine once begged me to simply confirm if I earned more than his friend’s dad.
Parents do not hesitate to talk about their grown-up children’s income while arranging weddings, or in a social gathering, or even in a casual conversation in a train or flight. Some friends take offence if you change jobs and don’t tell them what your CTC is. Helps us negotiate better, they say, and then sulk or snigger at your number.
Our income is personal information that we are entitled to be discreet and private about. Just as it is inappropriate to ask for the income of the other, it is obscene to talk about your income and make it public information. There is just no need to disclose what we earn to anyone. It is ours to hold, spend, save and invest. If the couple is comfortable with it, and the household makes financial decisions jointly, the spouse should know.
I know of men and women who contribute to a common pool for household expenses, and keep the rest for their personal use. Some of them even get judged by friends and elders for doing so. Then there are horror stories of young married women handing over their incomes to the spouse or in-laws and finding that they can’t spend anything without approval.
The problems that arise from disclosing how much you earn are many. First, people who know your income begin to associate you with your earnings, as if you are the money you earn. When a father begins a conversation with a friend saying, “My son is a manager with XYZ and makes a CTC of XXX”, he allows such a narrow definition. Or when a group of friends routinely refer to the income you disclosed and bring it up at every conversation. You risk other aspects of your personality from shining through, when your earnings are in the public domain.
We have all heard stories of a family member going elsewhere to earn—the big city, the Middle East, or the coveted West—and returning to visit the family. The expectations from everyone around is so high, that the pride of the high-paying job turns into agony. When your earning is the talking point, many others begin to make plans with your money.
Second, people will begin to make money decisions for you. You will be expected to pay for stuff you never intended to pay for. Or, you would be judged for the gifts you give and the charities you do. Someone will tell you that you could have done better. Or someone will point out that you are wasting money, given your limited earnings. The constant nagging about what is wasteful expense and what is the expense you can afford will tire you.
Third, people are likely to interpret your actions as arrogant or boastful if they believe you earned more; and will judge you as miserly and thrifty as they associate your expenses with your disclosed earnings. The expectations others will have for your behaviour can be very overbearing. If you took a cab, you will be called lavish; and if you chose to take public transport, you will be called stingy. The quality of your decisions is now open to constant judgment and you will end up abrogating some of the decisions about money, which you thought were yours to make.
There are great advantages to not disclosing your income. First, you set the limits for how generous or thrifty you will be, and hold complete control over what is an appropriate spend. If you bought a gift for Rs 10,000 for a wedding, it will be seen in absolute terms as a worthy act. But if they knew that you earned Rs 1 crore a year, in relative terms that gift will be judged to be too small. You may have many more demands on your money and you alone should decide what the appropriate budget for this head should be . Such discretion and freedom is too precious to lose.
Second, you decide how you will live, what car you drive, what clothes you wear, and where you holiday. You may dislike flashy things and choose to live a simple life. You may choose to live a life where others would not be able to guess your income and wealth. Or you may decide to wear your wealth on your sleeve and spend on ostentatious things that make you feel like a member of an exclusive club. Without the crucial information about how much your income is, and what you can actually afford, others will not be able to tell. They would find you spend on something and hold back on something else, and not be able to judge or interfere. As long as you are not asking anyone else to fund your lifestyle choices, it is no one’s business to tell you what to do with your money.
Third, you can pursue interests that matter to you; charities that fulfill you; travel that brings together and bonds your family; and outings that enhance your precious family time. When others are not privy to what you earn, they would find it difficult to insert themselves into your life. Friends and relatives will understand that you make these big ticket decisions in consultation with your immediate family. When you buy tickets for your parents to travel to their favourite holiday destination, the joy and pride that their child is able to do this is very much present. They need not know what you earned, nor do they have to ask. It is completely up to you to decide what you can afford and when.
Being overbearing in nature provides us the vicarious satisfaction of living another’s life. We have to hold back that urge to brag about our income or be overtly curious about what the other’s income is.
(The writer is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning.)