Regular readers of this blog are aware that I am an immigrant from India. I moved to the U.S. just two months shy of my 30th birthday. At the age of 37 I discovered the twin ideas of financial independence and retiring early (FIRE), and I am plotting to retire when I turn 42.
I recently filed for my U.S. citizenship and I found my thoughts turning nostalgically to my homeland. As I sifted through my memories of growing up in India in the 80s and the 90s, certain themes emerged; odd quirks that I associate with being middle class and Indian. That lead me to wonder: do the Indian quirks that I absorbed as a young, impressionable sponge actively contribute to my relationship with money?
Indian Quirk #1: The Law of Conservation of Clothing
Clothing can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.
We had strict rules about what kinds of clothes were either inherited or bought, and what kinds resulted via a slow process of transformation. One could acquire clothes (rarely bought, mostly inherited from older cousins) for a party or for work or school. Clothes needed for any other purpose evolved from your party/work clothes with the slow passage of time. Once an item of clothing could no longer cover your body and still be considered decent, it transformed into a rag.
*Holi: The festival of colours. This is what your clothes look like after you’ve played Holi:
I took me over thirty years to rebel and buy my first pair of pajamas. It was the height of decadence.
Some enterprising clothes escaped the fate of being relegated to rags by being magically transformed into pots. There were women who would wander door to door carrying on their heads a giant basket of pots, pans and utensils. They would take away your old clothes in exchange for things that you needed in the kitchen. They took these clothes back to their villages, where folks did not have access to shops that sold ready made clothes, and they sold them there.
The result? I don’t believe I need special clothes to bike or work out. I value hand-me-downs and gratefully accept offers of used clothes for Toddler BITA. I still transform old clothes into rags.
Indian Quirk #2: The Quest for Eternal Youth
Indians believe that for certain consumer goods plastic is the path to everlasting life. I never once, in all my childhood, ever laid eyes on an unprotected TV remote control.
If we protected ourselves half as well as we do our remotes, we would have died out instead of growing to a billion strong. The apocalypse will be upon us and the dust from the mushroom cloud will rain down, but our remotes will continue to look spanking new.
New cars came with their seats covered in plastic. Removing that plastic was sacrilege.
We don’t always swaddle things up like little plastic mummies. Sometimes all you need is small plastic totem. You know that plastic film that is on the screen of your phone or ipad when you buy it? Woe betide you if you suggest that that should be removed.
Where we can’t use plastic we make do with cloth. Sofas almost always have a sheet covering them. You could live in a house for all your childhood and never know what colour your sofas actually are.
One of my friends once acquired a doll from abroad. The doll had blue eyes that opened and closed. It was as a thing of wonder. And being so wondrous, it was important that its wondrousness was preserved for this generation and the next to appreciate. So the doll stayed in the box in which it was placed by the manufacturer – you know the kind, a cardboard box with a plastic front through which you can see the doll. We played with her for many happy hours, cradling her and carrying her and feeding her, and all the while she never once emerged from her little coffin.
The result? My remote controls run wild and free and I peel the plastic film off my mother’s phone while she squeals in shock and horror. But I have learned to value the things I own, to take good care of them, and to never assume that they can simply be replaced with another. I have the mindset of a person who is only going to get one shot at owning a thing, and that has served me well.
Indian Quirk #3: Reuse Everything
Indians reuse everything. My home was like the Hotel California for any jar that was bought from a store. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. After we had consumed whatever was in the jar or box or container of any description, it would be washed and reused forever more. All of the spices in our kitchen, all the lentils, all our snacks, all resided in these repurposed containers. I remember the first time I laid eyes on an Ikea magazine. I was dazzled by those orderly rows of matching kitchen containers. It appealed to my aesthetic sense and I aspired one day to have a pantry that looked like that. Now though, I see the beauty of the mismatched kitchens of my youth.
Related Post: The Backstory Of Mrs. BITA
We had a plastic bag hanging from the kitchen door knob into which we stuffed every other plastic bag that crossed the threshold of our home, keeping them safe for future reuse. We didn’t get milk in tetra packs or gallon jars. We got milk in plastic bags. The bags were snipped, the milk extracted, and then the bags were washed, dried and made their way into the mother ship of plastic bags.
We used old newspaper to line kitchen shelves and drawers. Used tea bags turned into fertilizer. Water used for boiling potatoes was reused to clean silver.
The result? I reuse still, but I try to be mindful to not go sliding down the slippery path and turn into a hoarder. I have money plants growing in old beer bottles and a healthy collection of plastic bags lurking under the sink. When we travel these plastic bags come in handy to pack our shoes and to collect dirty clothes that accumulate during the trip.
Indian Quirk #4: Waste Not, Want Not
My people are not a fan of waste. I was never allowed to leave the table if there was still food on my plate. I remember once oh-so-slyly attempting to tip the plate to send the food to the floor so that I wouldn’t be forced to cram it down my throat. My mother fixed me with a steely eye and said, “If that falls down you are going to eat it off the floor”. She meant it too. Leftovers were never discarded. They appeared, grinning cheerfully up at you, meal after meal for what felt like weeks on end.
The waste not, want not credo applied not just to food. It applied to the use of electricity. Even battery power. Our precious plastic encased remotes ran equally on batteries and on slaps. When the batteries started to give out, there was no rush to replace them. Instead we slapped the remote silly and continued to use it. It was only when even slapping the remote into a coma yielded no results that the batteries were begrudgingly changed. It applied to water for a bath. We got one bucket per bath. No more. And later on in my childhood, when we did have a shower, we were never allowed to keep the shower running the whole duration of the bath. You could have it on for about a minute, then off while you soaped up, and then another minute to rinse off. If you stood luxuriating under the shower for too long, you would have a parent thumping at the door asking if water grows on trees. Failure to respond to this warning would result in the water being turned off altogether.
Indians don’t even waste minutes on their cellular plan. We use a concept we call the missed call. For example:
“I’ll pick you up and we’ll go to the mall together”.
“Great. See you at 5. Give me a missed call when you get here, and I’ll come down”.
When 5 in the evening rolled around, and your ride arrived, they would call your phone, let it ring once or twice and disconnect. You would not pick up when you saw it ring. You would just head downstairs. The missed call allows for communication without wasting precious plan minutes.
The result? I am still miserly with water in the shower. I still turn off the lights when I leave the room. I still feel immensely guilty if I ever throw food away. I don’t abuse my free-range remote though, I just change the batteries. I waste not, and thus far, I have wanted not.
My people have their quirks, and I confess that I have been guilty of mocking them (mostly my mother, really). With the wisdom of advancing age I realize that those little oddities and weirdnesses are part of who I am, and from a financial point of view, they have stood me in good stead.
What weirdnesses did you grow up with that have turned out to be assets on your path to financial independence?