SynopsisWriting in ET Evoke, Kunal Shah discusses why it is essential for India’s national growth to empower every citizen with education about money:
Over 8 0% of Indians have bank accounts today, up from 40% in 2014. UPI registers two billion transactions every month while 600 million RuPay cards have been issued. Now that the majority of Indians have bank accounts and access to related services, how many of them use these? And how many use these effectively or have graduated toother financial instruments?
The answer is defined by society’s relationship with money, which begins with financial literacy. Until there is widespread understanding of how to manage money smartly at an individual level, our aspiration to be a USD five trillion economy will remain difficult to fulfill. While the lack of understanding of money gets worse outside privileged circles, educated Indians, represented by the salaried and professional classes, are also equally at their wit’s end about their finances. Just ask about the rate of interest they pay on their credit card outstanding at the next dinner party.
Part of the reason for this is cultural — the norm of never asking a person about his/her salary translates to a culture of silence around money, silence around struggles with money and shame associated with earning, borrowing and growing money. Taking a loan – the surest way to access the capital one needs to create wealth and the strongest indication of faith in one’s ability to do so — is treated as a source of embarrassment. Few Indians know about their credit score until their loan applications get rejected,by which time they have lost confidence in their ability to raise resources. When financial decisions are based on visceral reactions, rather than logic, financial tools are sub-optimally used.
Left with outdated advice shaped by personal experiences, Indians pick up money management behaviours mostly handed down by their parents, who often neglect to give women any guidance at all, right or wrong. About 43% of women-owned enterprises in India report monthly profits less than Rs 10,000,compared to 16% of those owned by men. If small businesses are the engine of growth taking us to our destination, i.e., an Atmanirbhar Bharat,then half the pistons aren’t firing. The only lubricant is a broader understanding of economic concepts.
All of this has resulted in a financial services ecosystem which is oriented towards reducing risk and maximising penalties through cumbersome processes, multiple hoops to jump through and an experience that ends up excluding people, rather than promoting responsible financial behaviour and creating pathways for inclusion beyond a bank account and mobile phone. The truth is, our troubled relationship with money as a society is costing us — at an individual, household, state andcountry level.
While the solution is simple but not easy, taking it up with the same vigour with which financial inclusion itself has been undertaken will yield long-term results. Financial education for all must be the obj ective. There are effective ways forward — tie up with hospitals to educate expectant mothers on money. Introduce financial concepts in high school. Encourage students to start businesses during vacations and understand the consequences of financial decisions early. Give every school-going 16-year-old access to credit, allowing them to build up a credit history by the time they graduate. Insist that financial services become more transparent about the fees charged and the snowballing consequencesofdefault. Usetechnology for behavioural nudgesthat promote better financial knowledge and performance.
RBI’s Financial Literacy initiative is a great first step, as well as those taken by various Indian banks and institutions to enhance our knowledge of financial instruments. Just like endeavours like Swacch Bharat have become ingrained in society in a few years due to incredible communication, mo bili s ation and in f r as t r uctu r e effo r ts, the expansion of the Financial Literacy initiative will help the country reap significant rewards. A national effort towards this will involve bringing the ecosystem together and addressing the education challenge at every level, starting from schools to employers, expanding the scope of initiatives such as Cashless India, incentivising banks, fintechs and startups to build innovative products using digital infrastructure and committing to this with a communications campaign across every level of government. The result? Better usage of financial products will lower risk. Lowered risk will increase trust, higher trust will reduce friction and lower friction will increase transactions. As the flywheel starts spinning, the entire economy moves forward, taking along every individual in the country with it.
Kunal Shah is the founder of CRED.