Breadwinning, International Women – Aparna Aggarwal

Today I have a different kind of guest post for you – an awesome breadwinning woman from India, my friend Aparna Aggarwal of Elementum Money.

She’s a former marketer turned financial planner, and now the sole breadwinner in a country where that’s not exactly common.

One of the things I love about the internet, and running this site, is the chance to meet and learn the stories of women from other countries. We face different challenges, but also have a lot in common, and can support one another from across the globe.

Without further ado –

 Let’s Learn More About Her Story

Hi, I am Aparna Aggarwal, a Certified Financial Planner, based in Mumbai, India. I have been a big fan of Personal Finance blogs and literally stalk them, off late.

To me, one of the most interesting things people share is their story and the realization of how varied aspects of one’s life feeds into their money story. I realised that my story is pretty different, coming from a third-world country and might provide some food for thought.

Aparna is the little one in red on the right. Her older sister is in blue cutting her birthday cake.

Humble Beginnings

I was born in the Indian capital city – New Delhi – in the closed era of the Indian economy. I was 4 when the great liberalization of the Indian economy took place and the gates to economic development and consumerism really opened up.

India is still a young country with little over 70 years post independence from a long British rule. Till 1991, the economy was still trying to get to its feet. In the era of the closed economy, no foreign brands were allowed to flourish on Indian soil. In fact, in 1977, one of the governments actually shut down operations of companies like Coca Cola and IBM. These finally made a reappearance in 1991. Today, MNC brands typically trip over each other to come into the country. Even the cheap populist Western brands become aspirational in India, thanks to the currency conversion.

So, my parents still remember the time when wanting to buy a 2-wheeler meant a waiting period of 15 years! They applied for a scooter much later and still waited for 3-4 years before getting one in 1982.

In 1990, Maruti Suzuki launched a car named Maruti 1000. People could book it for an amount of Rs. 35,000 ($600 in today’s terms). Funnily enough, whoever did book the car got an Income Tax investigation notice in return as the government was suspicious of anyone having that kind of money.

The financial services industry was also nascent yet simpler to deal with. If you thought of insurance, you could go only to the government provider – Life Insurance Corporation. Mutual funds were yet another nascent industry with just a few government players. Post-liberalisation, with the approval to entry of private players, the industry more or less exploded. With more competition, the financial services industry too, does it’s best to confuse with jargon, leading to people mostly staying away.

The banking system was primitive, to say the least. My father would take a token from the bank branch to withdraw money and come back after 2 hours for his return. In the meantime, the token would have travelled across a few departments in the branch. He finally shifted his bank because the new one, Indian Overseas Bank, finally introduced a teller system where he could directly deposit a cheque and withdraw cash. Credit or Debit cards were unheard of that time.

The only TV channel that was allowed was the government channel called Doordarshan (literal translation – looking from afar). Post-1991 foreign media and the visually appealing consumerism made an entry with Robert Murdoch’s Star. People here began to see what they were potentially missing out on and media’s impact on consumer habits saw a spike. As of 2016, there were 857 channels of which about 184 were payable. (Source: Wikipedia

If you are wondering, why am I giving you a long economic commentary about India, it strongly feeds into my financial journey. I am a pre-liberalisation baby and my parents have learnt to manage money in a time of scarcity. CMO Note – this would be somewhat equivalent to those folks who grew up with parents who dealt with the Great Depression here in the US. 

My father, like most of the people around him had a steady government job. Private jobs were not very common. With liberalization, foreign countries were allowed entry bringing with them a host of high-paying corporate jobs.

Frugality is something I have seen and practiced at close quarters as a child. With liberalization and the explosion of spending opportunities, it is easy to let it fritter away, but sometimes roots stay irrespective of the environment.

My path into marketing

While I was always decent at my math skills, I can’t really say I had a passion for it. While graduating in history, I realised research might not be my destination after all. I changed course to business as advertisements had always interested me as a kid.

In my second year of MBA, my father tried his subtle nudges to get me to specialize in Finance, instead of marketing. However, the “F-word” intimidated me and it wasn’t something I could imagine spending my life doing. I continued on my path to becoming a marketer and joined a retail firm.

On the campus I was one of the people to be placed first but with one of the lowest salary packages. My first monthly salary was a mere Rs. 30,000 (about $500) I still remember being asked why I had “settled”. The fact that I did not have to do sales and could straight away jump into marketing some what sealed the deal for me. In hindsight, I believe sales is an elemental experience and can teach one a lot. If I had to do it all over again, I might just try out a sales job.

Switch to Personal Finance

Today, I believe my low salary was a blessing. I learnt to live in an expensive city like Mumbai, have fun and travel across the country for friends’ weddings, all in that kind of money. I also managed to save up Rs. 3,00,000 ($5000) over 3 and a half years thanks to automation on my bank account.

I lived the first two years in a small cramped room, about 100 square feet in size, with another girl. We barely used to get out of the room since the landlord’s family lived right there and we crossed their living room, just to get our cramped space.

After three and a half years with the retail firm, I got offered a role in marketing with the country’s largest private bank. I considered it multiple times, considering the thought of finance was a potent enough dose of sleep. However, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

I joined in with the Loans team. In the first three days of my job, I was shipped off to the credit processing centre. I saw at close quarters the process of loan approvals and credit scores. It was a new and surprisingly exciting world in what I expected would be boring.

About 2 years later, I was having coffee with two of my close girl friends from school. I started talking to them about the Home Loan I had taken and investing in stocks and mutual funds. They looked at me with wide eyes and said they barely knew any of that. One of them talked about how they manage to save almost no money.

That was my eureka moment. I realised that what I probably wasn’t too fond of was corporate finance which I could not relate to. Personal finance, instead, was the real deal for me. To ensure at least I knew all I could, I started preparing for and went on to clear the exams for Certified Financial Planner in 2017. Simultaneously, I started writing to demystify Personal Finance, from an Indian perspective.

Change to sole breadwinner

I met my husband in my first job at the marketing team in the retail firm. About 3 years into the marriage, I could feel his frustration and stagnation with his job (now at an Indian telecom MNC). Both of us agreed on the fact that he was far more creative and better at marketing than the kind of avenue his job offered.

Late, in 2016, we came to the decision that he would quit his lucrative corporate job to start his own marketing agency. At that point our household earnings were in a 55:45 ratio, with 55% being contributed by him. We also had 1 Home Loan and 3 personal loans running! Once we made the decision, we had a lot of white boarding sessions over weekends to understand how we would make ends meet on my salary.

My new and current employer (another bank) offered a Home Loan at staff interest rates till a certain amount. Even after a year I had not initiated the mortgage transfer. The first thing I did was to initiate it as the major monthly saving would come from that.

The two of us used to go to an expensive gym. I switched to the free gym at office and realised how much I loved the lesser crowd and the convenience.

The husband withdrew his compulsory retirement savings that are deposited on an employees behalf with a Trust or a Government organisation (with the knowledge that he would start rebuilding it much more aggressively). This was used to pay off one of the personal loans, while the other two were consolidated into a new personal loan at a lower rate, given by my employer.

Today, it’s about 7 months since my husband started his agency. He has a few clients and all the revenue as of now is reserved to be put right back into the business. I am the sole breadwinner, for all practical purposes. The remaining retirement fund is used by the husband to take care of his personal expenses and a few utility bills.

While most days, I do not give it more than a passing thought, whenever I do I know that I am quite proud of the fact that I am a sole breadwinner. This is what has allowed my husband to go out there and chase his dream and I know if the roles were reversed, he would have happily done the same.

What’s your financial journey?

The more I get into the Personal Finance blogosphere, the more I realize the power of inspiring stories. The series started by Liz about the FIRE, breadwinning and six-figure women being a case in point.

Everyone has their own financial journey. It might start with realizing the deep end of the ditch with a high amount high interest debt or it might start with a yearning to achieve financial independence. It could start with a realization that you want to do more with your life or a realization that you want to achieve a richer life with your money.

Every one’s financial journey is unique. Some paddle to the shore, some feel the suffocation of trying to keep afloat whereas some learn the instinctive swimming when thrown to the deep end.

What does your financial journey look like? Are you happy with it or is it time to learn to swim?

P.S. don’t forget to stop by Elementum Money to read more!

If you haven’t already, be sure to swing by my one-stop shop page for Breadwinning moms, featuring all my prior articles and interviews (plus some updates on prior interviewees!). Know someone that would be perfect for this series, or is that you? Hop over to my “Be Featured!” page to access the request form.

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