Image via Nabigal-Nayagam Haider Ali

Dear Chithi: I'm Struggling Financially and Scared to Talk About it

Welcome to the inaugural Dear Chithi Column.

Traditionally in our cultures, your chithi (Tamil: aunt, also known as variously as kunjamma, pinni, chinnama, chikamma, or cheriamma, in Dravidian languages and maasi, mausi, mavsi, mashima or khaala in multiple South Asian languages) is a trusted go-to-person for advice, comfort, and wisdom.  This is the inspiration for this column. It is a support space for Dalit, Adivasi, and Bahujan folk around issues that are rarely discussed openly in the community.

It is my hope that we can use this column to lift each other up and dig in to our ancestral wisdom so we can live the full and free lives that are the fulfillment of our ancestors’ wildest dreams for us.

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Dear Chithi,

I am really embarrassed to write this. But I live in the US and I am the only one of my family here, and also one of the first to get a higher education. I am now making a good salary and I should be doing well in terms of my finances. But it is exactly the opposite.

I am afraid of my bills. I let the mail gather for months, horrified at what I might find. I don't check my credit and I am unsure how to plan for my budget for a month, let alone for retirement. I feel crippled whenever I think about finances. I remember my father telling me that. “We Dalits don’t know how to manage money. We have never been generationally wealthy like Baniyas or Brahmins. When we get some money, we spend it like water because we are not comfortable with it.”

And so I'm afraid. But I need to conquer this fear. Due to COVID, I am now the only earner for my family, so I also need to pay for the survival of many other people I feel responsible for at this time.

As a result, I just spend what I spend, but I do not feel like I am in control. It could all come crashing down at any time. I am tired of living like this and I need to confront this anxiety; what should I do?

- Financially Adrift

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Dear Financially Adrift,

I want to tell you that you are not alone. A lot of our people think that money problems are solely about a lack of money. But in fact, being structurally denied resources with punishing violence means we have generational trauma, which also includes the realms of finance.

Your question isn't just about practical advice around how to create a budget plan for important events in your life and feel confident about managing your money, but rather it is about your own family’s trauma around money and what it means to you, especially in the times you didn't have it.

This is why financial paralysis is such a common feature in our community. Respectability politics have made it hard for people to come forward about experiences with money. But let’s be real; how many Dalits do we know who have overleveraged their debt to show they have money in order to avoid being socially located or tormented by dominant castes? ? How many families do we know whose mothers leveraged loans, using their jewelry as collateral? We have generations of minimal wealth that you are grappling with. Therefore, it is important both to see this as a structural problem and to own where you can take control.

In order to begin feeling more confident about money, you need to start by understanding the wounds you have that come from financial deprivation. Consider taking some alone time and going to a quiet place and writing about your fears related to money.

  • What shape does that fear take in your body?
  • Do you tense up?
  • Does your body crave sugar?
  • Does it want to run away?

Fear is activated from the reflexive instinct of survival, so there will be some language in your body around your fear of finances that will correspond to fight freeze or flee response. Gauge what works for you. As you go deeper into these fears, know that you have the capacity to manage what you explore, especially as these sensations help you rediscover past memories that were the foundation of your own trauma legacy.

  • Did you have an eviction or a foreclosure in your past?
  • Did your family come from a slum or were they homeless?
  • Did you not have enough food growing up?
  • Did you see your parents sacrificing so that you could have something?

Looking at these memories will give you insight about how your past wounds inform your present. However, it does not have to define your future. This is why it is so critical that, in addition to doing this emotional work, you get practical help from people whose job it is to advise people on financial matters. Start with getting familiar with what is needed to manage finances. Check out books like Clever Girl Finance.

It also might be worth it for you to join a free group like Debtors Anonymous that helps you learn critical skills to manage and get on top of your money.

If you have a little bit more money to spare, you might consider an initial appointment with a financial advisor to help you think about what you need to tackle. Sometimes, even small goals like saving $50 or $10 , a month can help you feel more confident to move on to other financial goals.

The most important thing here is that your financial anxiety is not a fixed part of your identity. In fact, just as our people have a lot of trauma related to financial deprivation, we also have a rich legacy in hustling and making 1 paise into a hundred. We have generations of our ancestors who sacrificed, were industrious, and had incredible ingenuity when it came to imagining a world where they could live without violence. That is powerful energy you can lean into.

This anxiety is a passing phenomenon and you can gain so much from letting it go. In practicing non-attachment, you can both acknowledge the wounds that are the foundation for your anxiety, while also being nimble enough with your psyche so that you can feel free to be confident and in control with your money.

Wishing you the best of luck.